Sunday 30 March ~
Today's Merseyside derby will go a long way to establishing which team will finish fourth this season. Liverpool are already two points ahead of Everton with a much better goal difference, so even a draw would significantly strengthen their position given that their neighbours have a harder run-in and will be without Tim Cahill, probably their single most important player, for the rest of the season. Indeed if they lose today, they could yet be caught up by sixth-placed Portsmouth, now only four points behind. Whoever takes fifth place, there would be a case for awarding them a trophy for succeeding Spurs as the winners of the league-within-the-league.
Fifth place is about as far as Everton can be expected to do given the current resources available to manager David Moyes relative to his colleagues at the top four clubs. Rafa Benitez, for example, has spent more than £140 million in four seasons without yet finishing higher than third – although his popularity with the supporters is secure thanks to his achievements in the Champions League. Liverpool's current run in that competition now seems to be the only thing delaying the takeover of the club by Dubai Investment Capital. The beleaguered American owners have fallen out with one another over their exit strategy, but will want to hang around for as long as the club have a chance of becoming European champions.
While Liverpool will be extravagant transfer shoppers whoever owns their shares, David Moyes's concern over how much he will have to spend is said to be holding up talks on a renewal of his contract which will expire in a year's time. The Everton board came up with £12m to buy Yakubu last August and a further £10m was said to be available to buy Benfica midfielder Manuel Fernandes, though it ended up not being spent (Fernandes opted for Valencia but is currently at Everton on loan). The club's "special advisors" Terry Leahy, CEO of Tesco, and Sir Philip Green, the UK's seventh wealthiest individual, were said to be the source of this close-season cash. Neither appears to have any ambition to become the owner of the club, although the man from Tesco has a vested interest in the proposed new stadium in Kirkby. Indeed the only approach Bill Kenwright had to sell his controlling stake in recent years – from the mysterious Fortress Sports Fund – turned into a farce.
Several of the clubs below Everton do have wealthy backers, though. With the managers of Villa, Man City and Spurs all to be given substantial funds with which to make a push for Europe, Everton may have their work cut out even to retain a place in the top six in 2008-09, let alone getting another tilt at fourth. But they are at least making progress. This season will be the first time since the Premier League began that Everton have finished in top half for two years in a row. Whatever happens with their playing staff in the summer, the most important deal the club do will be to hang on to their manager.