Everton take on Liverpool on Saturday in one of the most important Merseyside Derbies in years. Liverpool's battle to crack the top four has been well documented in recent history, while Everton have toiled in mid table, far away from the bright lights of possible Champions League soccer.
This year it's different though. The Toffees have come on strong since January, losing just two matches out of their last 10, and taking 23 points from the last available 30. Now, they're in seventh place in the table, but their progress upward doesn't look like it's going to abate anytime soon.
The Merseyside Derby will be a huge test, and should they take all points, it begs the question: Do Everton actually have a shot at cracking the top four?
Sitting on 50 points, Everton are level with Arsenal (with two more games played than the Gunners). They're just two points behind Manchester United, and six points off Liverpool in fourth. A win against the Reds on Saturday would put them right within touching distance, and with their recent form, it could be the platform to go on and secure a Champions League spot.
If Everton are going to qualify, it'll be in large part because of Romelu Lukaku. The 23 year old has been in absolutely scintillating form this year, and directly responsible for over half of Everton's goals this season. He's even sitting on top of the Premier League scoring charts with 21 goals, and six assists on top of it. He's been the Toffees' best player this year, and it's not even close. If he continues to score at the rate he's been going, there's reason to believe Everton are in it with a real shot of qualifying.
The problem is, outside of Lukaku, Everton aren't getting much production on the goalscoring side. They have three players tied for second-top scorer, with Ross Barkley, Seamus Coleman and Kevin Mirallas all on four. With right back Coleman sidelined for the rest of the season due to injury, Mirallas' incredibly hot and cold form, and Barkley still growing as a player and finding his feet, it's hard to see where the goals would come from if Lukaku's form tailed off, or even worse, if he saw any time on the sideline due to injury or suspension.
Lukaku is clearly the key to this Everton team, but he's not the only one getting rave reviews on the blue side of Liverpool. Idrissa 'Gana' Gueye's name would be spoken much more if a certain N'Golo Kante didn't exist, but the 27-year-old Senegalese midfielder has been the Toffees' unsung hero all season.
Playing in the center of the park, Gana is averaging more tackles than any other player in the Premier League, with a stunning 4.5 recoveries per match well ahead of Kante, who's next best at 3.7.
Only Lyon's Maxime Gonalons and Real Madrid's Casemiro average more tackles per match in all of Europe. Gueye's in elite company, and his ubiquitous presence in midfield is a huge part of why Everton have been successful this year. Without him, there simply wouldn't be a question of them having a shot at Champions League qualification.
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As good as both Lukaku and Gueye have been for Everton, and as fantastic as their form has been recently, it's tough to see them cracking the top four. Not only is there not much quality in depth beyond their first team, they've just lost both Coleman and Argentine defender Ramiro Funes Mori for the season, and seen midfielder James McCarthy go down with a hamstring injury over the international break.
Beyond the significant injury issues that have arisen in recent weeks, there are question marks about the rest of the squad as well. Ross Barkley is still far from close to the finished product, and despite interest swirling around him from bigger clubs, it remains to be seen if he's truly ready to make the leap into the upper echelon of Premier League midfielders.
Aside from Barkley, Lukaku, and to a lesser extent, Kevin Mirallas, there just aren't many bona fide difference makers in this team. With Yannick Bolasie injured indefinitely, Arouna Kone and Enner Valencia wildly inconsistent, there isn't much to choose from when it comes to gamechangers. While 18 year old Tom Davies has shown glimpses of immense potential, it's a stretch to say this team, as it stands, look capable of going on to qualify, simply because of that lack of quality on the attacking end.
Lukaku can't do it alone. If he doesn't score the goals, who will?
Everton have been fantastic of late, and the dream is absolutely still alive. If they can manage to beat Liverpool on Saturday, it gives them even more of a shot to achieve the impossible. Realistically though? Don't expect the Toffees to be hearing the Champions League anthem next season.