Coming out of Anfield on Sunday, the talk was not so much of catching Manchester City in fourth place, but the fear that Liverpool could be overtaken by their rivals Everton. The red half of Merseyside will have every right to be worried if David Moyes's side can claim a victory at Aston Villa tonight. It would put them a point behind Villa in seventh and just three off Liverpool in sixth with four games left.
The fight for a Europa League place could be just as dramatic as the other issues yet to be decided in the Premier League. Villa are flagging and it will take all of Martin O'Neill's managerial acumen and motivational methods to put things right after Saturday's FA Cup semi-final defeat to Chelsea. Just like at the Carling Cup final, Wembley brought only pain. O'Neill said at his pre-match press conference yesterday: "You have to get over it. There's plenty of motivation about the team.
"We have given each of these competitions domestically due care and attention and given it everything we have got." Moyes said it would be difficult to imagine the effect of the weekend loss, but the Everton manager will be prepared for determination rather than deflation. He is an admirer of the job O'Neill has done, despite doubts about his Villa future. "To get to a cup final, a semi-final and challenging for fourth, he's done a brilliant job," Moyes said.
"Martin O'Neill's really important to Aston Villa so it's certainly not his position that is in jeopardy." But the focus for Moyes is not Villa, but the performance of his own side. "We have always been coming from behind and trying to play catch up," he said. "We have done a pretty good job at it, got close enough where you could consider we have still got chance of making a European spot and we need to win against Villa.
"We would like to be there [in Europe]. We will do everything we can and might need other people to help us out, but if we don't do our job then it doesn't really matter." At the start of the season, Everton were expected to push for the top four if they could keep their major players fit. The questions were not about their squad's quality, but the depth. To lose Mikel Arteta, Phil Jagielka and Phil Neville, the captain, to injury for long periods hurt them badly. Add Marouane Fellaini, the towering Belgian midfielder, to that list for the past two months and it would have a deep impact on any side.
Moyes added: "It's always 'what if?' in this game. But we think, with a fully-fit squad, we are very close to competing with the top teams. We have shown that on occasions this season [beating Chelsea and Manchester United]." The past cannot be altered but the next five games could bring a future that includes European football. O'Neill had the same thought as he added: "Since there's been a proper league table, we have never been out of the top seven and we continue to push there. While there is life, there is still hope."
@Email:firstname.lastname@example.org Aston Villa v Everton, KO 10.45pm, Showsports 4