It will be with an overriding sense of irony that Everton fans will celebrate making the top four if the achieve it this year.
Not only were the Toffees given long odds to continue their characteristically consistent performances in the wake of David Moyes departure, but the loss of Marouane Fellaini was also predicted to hit them hard in the centre of midfield. As is so often the case in modern day football, the naysayers and pre-seasonal prophets could not have been more mistaken.
Following yesterday’s 3-1 win at Craven Cottage, Roberto Martinez’s inspired Everton side sit fifth in the Premier League - four points behind Arsenal with a game in hand. Perhaps more interesting is the fact that they’re a comfortable six points ahead of Manchester United, again with a game in hand.
Though the reasons for their prediction-defying assault on the Champions League spots this term will naturally vary from one fan to the next, in my mind it’s the man who has filled the void left by the aforementioned Fellaini who should be attracting the lion’s share of the plaudits. Of course, I’m talking about Ross Barkley.
The 20-year-old has been nothing short of sensational in his maiden campaign as a regular first-team starter at Goodison Park this season, and his presence in the middle of the park has been widely credited as the energy which has fuelled Everton’s charge for a top four finish. Naturally he’s attracted the attention of a number of the clubs considered to be in the top bracket of English football. Here’s where the irony really hits home - United are amongst them.
In a turn of events which will likely have Everton chiefs rubbing their hands and beaming smiles at one another, United are said to be ready to compete with the likes of Chelsea for the services of Barkley. That’s right, they want the man who replaced the player they bought less than a year ago. Go figure.
But whilst the idea of a move to one of the Premier League’s elite clubs may appeal to Barkley both in terms of the financial incentives and the success he would be given the opportunity to achieve, surely he must see that following his old boss to Old Trafford would no longer provide the step up which would have at one point been deemed elementary in his progression as a player.
The harsh truth is that Everton are now just as good as United in virtually every area of the pitch. Though they can’t boast a world-class strike-force that go by the names of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie the Merseyside outfit are playing football that’s just as attractive as any showcased under Moyes. Aside from being able to offer him a handsome salary increase, United can’t provide Barkley with much that he hasn’t already got.
On the other hand there’s Chelsea, who could fairly easily deal Martinez a hefty blow. With Jose Mourinho in charge they’re a dead cert to be competing for major honours for the foreseeable future, and their squad has a healthy mix of talent both young and old. In every sense of the word they are a team on the up, regardless as to whether or not they manage to pip Manchester City to the title.
A move to Stamford Bridge would allow Barkley to take the next step in his career, without the risk of joining a side which could so easily find itself struggling next season. No doubt it would mean he would have to fight tooth and nail for every bit of game-time he was afforded, but snubbing United and joining Chelsea is something that the young Everton midfielder should seriously consider if he’s to leave this summer.