Everton-West Ham United Preview
For all the things Everton can buy with £100 million pounds, it's the one thing they can't give Romelu Lukaku that will lead to the striker's expected departure following this season.
Yet in-form Everton will look to continue their push for European play somewhere next season when they face a short-handed West Ham United squad at the Olympic squad on Saturday.
Lukaku, who leads the Premier League with 24 goals and has been short-listed for PFA Player of the Year and PFA Young Player of the Year, recently opted against signing a five-year extension that would have kept him at Goodison Park. Though the Toffees (16-9-8) are tied for sixth in the table with Arsenal, the Gunners have two matches in hand, and it appears too tall an order to jump them and both Manchester sides for a top-four finish that would secure Champions League play.
And that has been what the Belgium international has longed for since arriving from Chelsea in the 2013-14 season, playing Tuesday and Wednesday nights, not Thursday nights. Facing the inevitability of not being able to re-sign Lukaku, Everton put an eye-watering £100 million price tag on his transfer fee this week, with Chelsea and Manchester City the top domestic suitors. There is also talk of the new ownership group at AC Milan expressing interest as the storied Italian giants have new-found capital to spend.
Despite the impending disappointment over his eventual departure, manager Ronald Koeman had nothing but praise for his striker after he was also named to the PFA Premier League team of the year.
"Romelu has made a big impact, of course, with the goals he has scored this season," Koeman told Everton's official website. "But his continued development in different aspects of play are just as significant in terms of his all-round effectiveness and productivity. He is continually improving and it's that total picture that makes him one of the best strikers."
Lukaku has 12 goals in his last nine league matches and capped the scoring in last weekend's 3-1 win over Burnley that was Everton's eighth straight at home. Phil Jagielka also scored for the Toffees, who took the lead on 71 minutes after an own goal by Clarets defender Ben Mee.
A win over West Ham would guarantee Europa League play for Everton next season since Manchester United's EFL Cup title opened a slot further down the standings. But Koeman doesn't want his team to simply settle for what will be given to them, the Dutch gaffer is aiming at a top-five finish since his side closes the season against an Arsenal team fighting for their Champions League lives.
"It is our target; we know it's really difficult and a battle between Everton, Arsenal and Manchester United," Koeman said. "The last game of the season is Arsenal v Everton, and if we are still in the hunt, then to beat them will be very nice.
"Of course we know it means Thursday evenings and weekends," he added about qualifying for the Europa League. "We know we have to be prepared in the number of players in order to battle in all the competitions. That's a challenge, and I am not afraid of that because it is what everybody likes to have - football in Europe."
West Ham (10-7-16) started their season in the Europa League for the second straight year, but an early exit was, in hindsight, an omen to what has been a disjointed campaign filled with inconsistency and disharmony. The Hammers are on the verge of safety - they are in 13th and behind Leicester City on goal difference while nine points clear of the drop - but getting there has been an arduous ordeal.
West Ham were held to a 2-2 draw at last-place Sunderland last weekend, conceding the equaliser on 90 minutes. Twice the Hammers were pegged back, and defender Sam Byram complicated matters for this match by getting his second yellow deep in second-half stoppage time.
He joins captain and midfielder Mark Noble on the banned list for this match, while oft-injured striker Andy Carroll is unavailable because of a groin injury. The good news for embattled manager Slaven Bilic is that he will have Winston Reid on the back line as he's sufficiently recovered from a knock, and it will be an all hands-on-deck situation to deal with Lukaku, who has a nine-game goal-scoring streak in all competitions against West Ham with four of them match-winners.
"It's a job for our defenders (to stop Lukaku), but not only the defenders, to stop him," Bilic said. "In some games we've played against them, our defenders were really good against him but last time he scored a goal.
"The more you stop the service, the less likely he will hurt you. Lukaku is really good. He's also consistent for his age. People forget how young he is because he's been on the radar for a long time. He's been scoring goals since he went on loan from Chelsea and every season at Everton."
The most recent of those match-winners came in the reverse fixture, a 2-0 victory at Goodison Park on Oct. 30. Lukaku also turned playmaker and set up Ross Barkley's goal to seal the victory for Everton, who went 6-3-0 in their final nine matches in all competitions at Upton Park. The Toffees are seeking their fourth league double over West Ham in five seasons.
"We need a good away performance because I still think there is a little difference in the way we play, like to press and how we like to make it difficult for our opponents," said Koeman, whose team has just two wins from their last 14 league road matches. "We need to start well, start aggressive and try to score. We need a little bit more of that mentality away from home."
Updated April 20, 2017