The league is a method of adding meaning to a series of individual football matches that, but for the framework provided by the competition, would each, whatever the entertainment they provided, be essentially meaningless. It’s a jolly clever method, but towards the end of a season there will always be matches upon which rests not a great deal. This, on the face of it, is one of those. Everton are currently in ninth place, and Newcastle in 10th. Neither is likely to finish above eighth or lower than 12th. There is little motivation for the players here except whatever naturally burns inside them.
But these are still interesting teams, who have had interesting seasons, stories whose final chapter remains to be written. They may be one point and one place apart in the table, but they have taken very different routes to get there.
Since they lost at home to Everton in December Newcastle have been beaten in the league by Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City. And nobody else. There have been eight wins, with Manchester United and Arsenal both on the list of victims. After that Everton game they were 16th, one point ahead of 19th and three above the bottom side, Swansea. Their record in 16 matches since is the seventh best in the country, and in league games played in 2018 they are fifth. Win tonight and they will leapfrog their opponents into ninth overall, with a top-half finish virtually assured. They are a team on an upward trajectory, and in any rational analysis Rafael Benítez has wildly overachieved this season.
In the 2018 table Everton are 14th. There has been precisely one month this season, starting on 27 November, just before Sam Allardyce’s appointment, and ending on Boxing Day, when they have done well. Between those dates only Manchester City outperformed them and they snaffled 14 points, precisely a third of their total for the entire season so far. Outside that period there have been 28 games: six wins, eight draws and 14 defeats. The Allardyce bounce lasted just a few weeks, and feels a long time ago already, and both fans and manager appear already to be grumbling. They are a team still in search of an identity, and a trajectory.
So, to be sure, this is a mid-table match with little of importance at stake. But it’s still, for all that, intriguing. And so, in short, worth sticking with.