Romelu Lukaku's Everton frustrations understandable
All eyes will be on Romelu Lukaku when Everton are away to Manchester United on Sunday, both for his ability on the pitch and the midweek comments ruffling feathers off it.
Lukaku's goals are the driving force behind a frustratingly inconsistent Everton who are becoming, statistically, the most clinical team in the division, scoring with 18 percent of their shots this season. Proven finishing is imperative against a United defence conceding only seven goals in 14 home games thus far.
Usually doing his talking on pitch, Lukaku caused quite a stir off it this week, falling into the familiar trap of perhaps saying too much while on international duty. Nothing livens up these domestic lulls like a player hinting at a future spent elsewhere, yet it is unsurprising Lukaku covets the European stage on a regular basis. While rarely seeming the type to rock the boat and force an exit, Lukaku has never hid his ambition or desire to reach the very top (nor should he). While the timing is somewhat poor with an FA Cup semifinal on the horizon, this appeared little more than a frank assessment of his current position.
Rather than dissect Lukaku's words down to the slightest detail, the real issue is another player feeling they must leave Everton to fulfil their ambitions. Since the turn of the century, albeit with improved finances gradually slowing the process, the list of those departing Goodison Park in search of a brighter future includes Wayne Rooney, Joleon Lescott, Steven Pienaar, Mikel Arteta and Marouane Fellaini. As recently as the previous summer, highly rated centre-back John Stones was ready to accept the advances of a persistent Chelsea.
There are 10, possibly 11 matches left to play in the league and cup. It is plausible that Lukaku, who has 25 goals in all competitions, could end the season with 30 goals for an Everton side finishing in the bottom half. Such a prospect draws attention to a season littered with missed opportunities.
Lukaku's goals are one of the few bright spots in this campaign, and six in his last seven matches underline consistent goalscoring form. All-round performance has fluctuated across the season -- hardly surprising for an ever-present player shouldering a heavy attacking burden -- but Lukaku has regularly delivered in the final third, scored the necessary goals and provided foundations his teammates and manager failed to build on.
As Lukaku has shown across his three seasons at the club, goal scorers are invaluable, especially when a team operates at similarly efficient levels across the pitch. While Lukaku laments Everton's inability to close out matches and hold onto leads, his nearest competitors in the race for the golden boot, Tottenham's Harry Kane and Leicester's Jamie Vardy, are battling it out for the league title.
That is why it is difficult to find too much fault in a player dissatisfied at Everton's current standing. It would be more concerning if Lukaku simply sat back, content with his lot, happy his team are languishing in the lower reaches of the division. More than anything, Lukaku's comments merely highlight how far Everton remain from achieving the Champions League target manager Roberto Martinez set on his arrival. The gap to the top four has long been insurmountable and currently stands at 13 points.
Martinez has moved to ease fears surrounding the future of key players, citing recent investment and newfound financial heft in the battle against clubs who are sure to circle this talented but underperforming squad in the summer. However, there is no use having money off the pitch without the results matching on it.
FA Cup success could rescue something meaningful from a disappointing season, but this open campaign has seen Lukaku's Champions League dreams squandered in spectacularly depressing fashion. As such, there is little excitement attached to remaining league outings this term, although a potential FA Cup semifinal dress rehearsal against Manchester United has more merit than most.
Remarkably, Everton head along the M62 in pursuit of a new club Premier League record. Avoid defeat and it is nine away league games unbeaten for a team winning their last four on the road in all competitions. This alarming disparity between home and away seems to widen by the week.
Everton have the worst home defence in the league yet more points on their travels than Manchester City and as many as United. One defeat in the last 14 away league games, wretched home form and any potential fan ire toward Lukaku is why a run of three successive away matches starting at Old Trafford on Sunday, a ground Everton have won on once in their last 22 visits, feels more of a blessing than it reasonably should.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.