Don't look now, but Everton is poised to make a late run for a Champions League position.
The same Everton that lost longtime manager David Moyes to Manchester United last spring; the same Everton that went three matches before posting their first win of the season back in August.
It's hard to believe, what with a top-four finish within their reach, there was a time when incoming boss Roberto Martinez -- he of relegated Wigan -- was criticized for a poor performance in a summer transfer market that saw him raid his former club for a handful of players and accomplish little else before the end of July.
But the September loan acquisitions of Manchester City midfielder Gareth Barry and Chelsea forward Romelu Lukaku provided some early-autumn momentum, and since then the Toffees haven't looked back.
They've won 17 of 28 Premier League matches since their start-of-the-season struggles, and going into Sunday's encounter with Arsenal (7:30 a.m., TSN2) they're only four points back of the fourth-place Gunners with a game in hand.
If they win out, they'll be contesting Europe's most prestigious club competition next term.
Just over 10 months removed from his appointment at Goodison Park, Martinez has firmly established himself as a bona fide Premier League manager. His Everton side boast the third-best defensive record in the English top flight (only Chelsea and City have conceded fewer goals), and James McCarthy -- one of those much-maligned signings -- has proven to be well worth the £13-million outlay.
Barry and Lukaku, meanwhile, are two of Everton's leading lights, and Seamus Coleman, Kevin Mirallas and John Stones have also become important players in a side that continues to get better as the schedule reaches its business end.
"Everton are a good side," offered Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger in his Friday press conference. "That's why they are where they are."
Four months ago Gerard Deulofeu -- another Martinez loanee -- scored a late equalizer against Arsenal at Emirates Stadium, and while the Gunners responded by beating Everton 4-1 in the FA Cup it's the Liverpool outfit that enter Sunday's showdown on the better run of form.
That Lukaku scored none of Everton's three goals at Craven Cottage pointed to the supplementary goal scoring available to Martinez, who has seen eight of his players find the back of the net during this winning streak.
Arsenal, meanwhile, have tallied just four times in their previous five matches -- two of which came in a 2-2 draw at home to Swansea. They've also won only 12 points since the start of February, and the 18 claimed by Everton have suddenly turned their final head-to-head of the season into a clash with all sorts of ramifications.
Will Wenger stay on if Arsenal fail to qualify for the Champions League? Will the London club see its squad decimated by player exits?
And, perhaps even more fascinating: Will Martinez still be at Everton if he manages to accomplish something that, even four months ago, was little more than a pipe dream?
He'd surely have no shortage of suitors for his signature; but then again, why would he want to leave a successful project that has his fingerprints all over it?
This is not the same Everton Martinez took over. It was never going to be. But no one imagined it would ever be this good.
-- The transfer ban imposed on Barcelona for violating FIFA's registration rules regarding youngsters is yet more proof that the Catalan giants have long felt they were above the law, an exception to the rule. Here's hoping their appeal is tossed out.
-- And this, from the annals of "What will those crazy fans do next?" On Friday, a dead sheep was found at the Hannover 96 training ground next to a sign reading, "On Sunday your time is up, you filthy animals." Earlier this season a pig wearing a Hannover scarf was set loose in the city centre. Hannover are presently 13th in the Bundesliga -- just five points clear of the relegation places.
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