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TIM HOWARD insists Everton’s players will thrive off the pressure of chasing a Champions League place as they prepare for what promises to be a thrilling climax to their season.
The Blues remain firmly in the hunt for a top four finish this season. Their weekend win over Stoke City, coupled with Chelsea’s surprise loss at Southampton, slashed the gap between themselves and the Champions League spots to just four points, with eight league games remaining.
Those eight games, for Everton, include trips to all four of the sides around them. They visit third-placed Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, and face Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea away from home before the season is out.
A fifth-placed finish will be enough to guarantee Europa League football next season and, despite the presence of strong, expensively-assembled teams around them, Howard believes the Toffees’ have the quality to take points off their rivals in the coming weeks.
“We’re keeping pace,” said the American ‘keeper. “I think we need a bit of luck but as long as we keep putting in the performances, and cross our fingers that some of the teams in front of us will drop points.
“If we can start taking points off around those around us, maybe we can make our own luck and make them drop points.
“Big players perform well under pressure, they thrive off it, that’s why we’re at this level and that’s why we’re not languishing in the middle or at the bottom. It is all to play for.
“I think that spurs us on and makes training a bit more competitive and tougher and hopefully that will give us the strength to push on down the stretch.
“It will be tough at Tottenham on Sunday. They are fantastic and playing really well and it’s a tough place to go, but we’ve had some success down the years so we’ll draw from that.”
Howard made a welcome return to action for Everton in their win over Stoke on Saturday, having missed the previous three games with a back problem.
“I didn’t take a knock on it which would’ve set me back so I’m happy,” he said.
“Stoke are always a rough and tumble team.
“I wanted to make sure that for this game I was as fit as I could possibly be to give myself every chance.”
Phil Jagielka is ready to keep playing through the pain barrier for Everton because he got bored on the sidelines.
Jagielka needed a pain-killing injection in his ankle to make his return for the Blues in Saturday's win over Stoke and says it was great to be back.
The gash he suffered to his ankle in a challenge from Reading's Adam Le Fondre last month has still to heal fully and he admits it is still painful.
But the England centre-half is prepared to put up with the discomfort to help Everton's Champions League push.
"I've been able to do most things other than kick a ball," he said. "It's not quite healed up yet, but it will get there and I can play without any problems.
"I've got to have an injection to take a bit of the pain away because there's still a bit of scar tissue but it's part and parcel of being a footballer.
"I've been desperate to get back training and playing with the lads. It's a boring time being on your own, especially being injured.
"I've been there before and so it's been nice to get back amongst it this week, even more so to play."
Jagielka claims David Moyes' players were fired up to beat Stoke in the evening kick-off after hearing that Chelsea had lost at Southampton.
"With it being a late kick-off, we knew how the other results had gone," he said. "To keep in touch with them, we needed a win."
Everton are poised to make a £1million move for Slovenia's Jan Oblak.
The keeper, 20, is currently on loan at Portuguese side Rio Ave from parent club Benfica. He had a trial with Fulham in 2009.