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KEEPING Kevin Mirallas fit could be the key to Everton’s hopes of a top four finish, admits Leon Osman.
The Belgian forward scored the only goal of the game as the Blues secured a hard-fought victory over Stoke City at Goodison on Saturday.
Mirallas, 25, had to be substituted with 10 minutes remaining after complaining of a groin problem, and team-mate Osman believes his ability to stay in the frame over the remaining eight fixtures will be pivotal as David Moyes’s men battle to qualify for the Champions League.
He said: “It was an important win.
"We knew what type of game it was going to be.
"We knew it wasn’t going to be about the football you play, it was going to be about battling and maybe nicking a goal with a good individual moment and that’s what happened.
“Kevin can light up a game at times. It’s important that we try and get him in the game as much as possible.
"You might get 20 minutes when he’s not in the game, but when he is we all know what he can produce.
“He’s certainly showed he’s got the quality.
"At times he’s been a real plus for us the way he goes about his job and the skill he’s got. It’s vital we try and keep him out there more.
"We need to get more games in him and more minutes in those games.”
Mirallas was replaced by England U-21 midfielder Ross Barkley, who despite being booked provided a bright cameo, something which satisfied Osman.
“I was pleased for Ross,” said the 31-year-old who was on the bench for Roy Hodgson’s senior Three Lions side in Montenegro last week. “It shows the manager’s belief in him that he threw him on in a tight game.
“He didn’t disappoint. I’ve spoken to him about earning the manager’s trust; to keep the ball ticking over in certain areas and then when he has a chance to show what he’s capable of, and I thought he showed a bit more maturity than he had done in the past.”
PHIL JAGIELKA is confident Everton can push their rivals for a Champions League place right up until the final day of the season.
Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Stoke courtesy of Kevin Mirallas’ 70-yard run and finish built on the win over defending Premier League champions Manchester City before the international break.
Since their dismal FA Cup quarter-final exit at home to struggling Wigan the response has been typical of the Toffees, bouncing back with a maximum six points.
That has reignited their top four challenge, now only four points adrift, and even though Arsenal and current incumbents Chelsea have bigger squads, more star players and have spent more money, Jagielka insists Everton can still match them.
“We’d like to think we can prolong the chase as long as possible,” said the centre-back, returning after missing three matches with a gashed ankle.
“If we’re going into the final game of the season still in with a chance of Champions League football then we have to look at that as a fantastic season.
“Unfortunately for us it is a season when five or six teams at the top rather than two or three are performing well.
“It seems like Spurs have played well again and won, Arsenal have so everyone seems to be desperate for that fourth spot and we’re desperate to be in there as long as possible.
“The manager has got the players he’s got, he has done the best he has with the players he has got in and when I look around the dressing room I’m happy with the players we have trying to get us into fourth spot.
“We are – as far as spending is concerned – a little bit below the other teams but I am sure they won’t look forward to playing us as much as we are looking forward to playing them.”
Third-placed Tottenham will find that out next weekend when Everton visit White Hart Lane and Arsenal also less than a fortnight later.
Those two matches are likely to be definitive in the Toffees’ chase to qualify for Europe’s elite club competition for only the second time.
The doom and gloom which emanated from Goodison Park after their Cup failure has quickly been dispelled.
“One of our worst performances of the season came in the most important game up to that point but I don’t think the lads in the changing room ever need a kick up the bum,” Jagielka added.
“We don’t have too many people who don’t turn up on a regular basis.
“But maybe it was a general reminder that possibly before we play the good stuff we make sure we stick to our guns and get the dirty side out of the way.”
TO ACHIEVE great things in the Premier League you need a game-changer; someone who can rise above the mundane and transform the ordinary.
Great things to most clubs outside of Manchester translates as Champions League qualification, and to wit Spurs have Gareth Bale, Arsenal have Santi Carzola and Chelsea have Juan Mata.
For Everton, Kevin Mirallas can be that man. He just needs to stick around.
A moment of brilliance from the Belgian enlivened this hard-fought, terse contest between two sides battling at opposite end of the table, but maddeningly he was unable to go the distance.
Mirallas’s body may well still be adapting to the physical rigours of English top-flight football, and particularly the attrition of a tussle with a team built like rugby league stars with the height of the Harlem Globetrotters.
But Everton desperately need Mirallas, who was forced off with a groin injury ten minutes from time on Saturday, to tough it out. Shorn of two of their big-game men in Steven Pieannar and Marouane Fellaini they were fortunate to have the former Olympiacos form back in the sort of form he was exhibiting before Autumn. It was a timely reminder of the exhilarating individual flair which lit up those early wins over sides like Aston Villa and Swansea.
Plenty of water has passed under the bridge since then, but despite the woes and set-backs Everton are still in with a shout of the top four. All credit for that to the indomitable spirit in the Goodison dressing room then, because they truly are a hardy bunch.
Tim Howard was back ahead of schedule here after the not insignificant matter of two broken bones in his back, and Phil Jagielka played through the pain barrier of the still-healing gash in his ankle. Both were superb – both instrumental in the triumph. If their mental and physical strength rubs off on Mirallas it will be a blessing.
The Blues were deployed with three at the back, as Jagielka’s return was accommodated alongside Sylvain Distin and John Heitinga, while Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman played further up the field as wing-backs. It was an interesting tweak, although whether it was the absence of Steven Pienaar or the unusual set-up, the Blues’ left-sided menace lacked its usual potency to begin with.
Everton had an early fright when Howard could only parry Robert Huth’s towering goal-bound header, and Jon Walters nodded the rebound onto the cross bar.
If that was a let off, Stoke too enjoyed a little fortune when the ball struck Marc Wilson’s arm in the penalty area and the home crowd howled for a penalty. Referee Mike Jones wasn’t convinced but replays suggested those appeals were well founded.
Everton couldn’t claim to have deserved much more than the stalemate in the early stages, with their general play lacking zip. But they began to brighten as the interval approached when Baines started to find his rhythm, and crossed for Nikica Jelavic to aim a dangerous header at goal which Asmir Begovic was well-placed to handle. The same combination almost saw Everton go ahead moments later when Baines’ low delivery was met by the Croatian, who saw his diving effort deflected behind for a corner.
Seamus Coleman is ever improving was finding little pockets of space down the right flank but alas when cutting inside he is presented with the option of shooting on his left foot and one particularly errant effort underlined why he is so reluctant to try it.
Still, at least the chances were starting to come and eventually the hosts capitalised. Howard’s clearing punch found Mirallas on the edge of the area and he surged forward with the ball. Sensing opportunity Goodison roared him on, and when the Belgian realised that his team-mates were not going to catch up he decided instead to go for goal, with some luck on the way when the ball broke back to him off Steven N’Zonzi. Mirallas still had a lot to do though, and he did it expertly; skinning the hapless Geoff Cameron before scoring with a shot which Begovic got a hand to but could not prevent going in.
Moments later he almost doubled his side’s lead, this time being teed-up by Jelavic but the forward could only drag his shot across the face of goal and wide of the far post.
Stoke thought they had equalised when Ryan Shawcross beat Howard, but the off-side flag spoiled his celebrations, and then Bluenose Jon Walters cut in off the left flank to test the USA international with a venomous drive.
It was a brief flurry for the visitors who were soon back defending, as Mirallas again caused trouble cutting inside and winning a corner with a deflected strike.
After the break the Potters began to show their customary belligerence, and managed to get more deliveries into the Everton area. One Glenn Whelan free kick was met by Huth who went very close to equalising with a header which was inches wide.
Then Ryan Shottom appeared set to head home at the far post when Sylvain Distin could only divert Cameron’s cross into his path. Fortunately for the Blues, the Stoke midfielder wasted the opportunity.
Everton’s threat began to dwindle, although Jelavic should have done far better with his close range header from Darron Gibson’s deep cross.
Then the Croatian did much better curling a free kick fractionally wide from just outside the area.
But generally Tony Pulis’s side were dominating, and went probing again when Cameron Jerome blazed his shot wide after smart inter-play from Shotton and Whelan.
There was a time in this season that Everton might have thrown three points away by conceding a soft late goal.
Fortunately they’re built of sterner stuff lately, and weathered the storm.
It’s a mettle they’re going to need as the calibre of opposition rises dramatically in the run-in. And Everton are going to need Mirallas to show it too.
Liverpool and Everton could be handed a boost in their bid to reach Europe next season following Easter Monday’s FA Cup quarter-final.
With Chelsea due to host Manchester United in a replay at Stamford Bridge, victory for the Blues would put them in a semi-final tie with Manchester City.
But should Rafael Benitez’s team go on to win the FA Cup and finish in fifth spot, the west London side would have qualified for the Europa League in two different ways.
In that event, the Blues would reach the tournament through their FA Cup win, with no UEFA rules stating that the domestic cup runners-up would take the vacated spot. That could open up a possible place for the sixth-placed Premier League side.
UEFA only state that the runners-up of the FA Cup are handed a European spot if the winners have already qualified for the Champions League.
Chelsea currently sit fourth in the Premier League which would see them reach the Champions League next season, but with Tottenham and Arsenal narrowly ahead and behind respectively, one of the London rivals is set to miss out on Europe’s premier club competition next term.
England’s spots for the Europa League go to the FA Cup winners, League Cup winners and fifth place in the Premier League, meaning an extra spot in the league could open the door for Everton and Liverpool who are sat sixth and seventh in the table respectively.
Should Chelsea win the Europa League there are no additional places in the competition handed to the Premier League, even if the Blues finish fifth and win the FA Cup.
If Chelsea’s only trophy win comes through the Europa League and they finish lower than fifth, they would defend their trophy and it wouldn’t come at the expense of the contingent of the English clubs.
Defender Phil Jagielka is confident Everton can push their rivals for a Champions League place right up until the final day of the season.
Saturday's 1-0 victory over Stoke courtesy of Kevin Mirallas's 70-yard run and finish built on the win over defending Premier League champions Manchester City before the international break.
Since their dismal FA Cup quarter-final exit at home to Wigan the response has been typical of Everton, bouncing back with a maximum six points.
That has reignited their top four challenge, now only four points adrift, and even though fifth-placed Arsenal and fourth-placed Chelsea have bigger squads and have spent more money, Jagielka, 30, insists Everton can still match them.
"We'd like to think we can prolong the chase as long as possible," said the centre-back, returning after missing three matches with a gashed ankle.
"If we're going into the final game of the season still in with a chance of Champions League football then we have to look at that as a fantastic season. Unfortunately for us, it is a season when five or six teams at the top rather than two or three are performing well. It seems like Spurs have played well again and won, Arsenal have [won], so everyone seems to be desperate for that fourth spot and we're desperate to be in there as long as possible.
"We are, as far as spending is concerned, a little bit below the other teams but I am sure they won't look forward to playing us as much as we are looking forward to playing them."