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Everton's European dilemma front and center in Premier League's final weeks

Last week marked 28 years since Everton last held the league title, while Wednesday signalled the 30th anniversary of the 1985 title-winning campaign, when the Toffees cruised to an eighth league title with five games to spare. Three defeats in the last four matches merely gave the table a less lopsided look -- Howard Kendall's team still cantered home by a 13-point margin. The European Cup Winners' Cup soon followed and only a narrow FA Cup final defeat to Manchester United denied a historic treble.

These recent anniversaries recalling the dizzy heights of the 1980s create quite a contrast with a side hoping for a late push into the top half ahead of the visit of relegation-threatened Sunderland in Saturday's early kickoff.

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Key to rebuilding the path back to those heady days of the 1980s is the presence of regular European football, a means to push the club's name on the continent. A possible backdoor return to the Europa League via the fair play route may yet ensure successive European campaigns for the first time since a three-season run from 2007 to 2010.

Out of those teams eligible, Everton sit a very close second behind West Ham in the fair play standings, which could create a fascinating match when the two meet in a week's time. Cynics might suggest indiscipline to ensure their team avoids starting the new season at the beginning of July.

The prospect of an early start and a first competitive match on July 2 is the biggest concern should the final fair play table provide another chance at European football, especially for a squad already requiring a sizeable injection of quality and quantity this summer.

Fair play offers entry at the lowest level: the first qualifying round. There are three qualifying rounds and a play-off round, each with two legs, before a team reaches the Europa group stages -- Everton's reward for fifth place in 2013-14 was a passage straight to their group. Roberto Martinez's men would face eight matches across July and August to reach the same stage this time around.

Such a hectic schedule, with 23 extra matches required for a fair play entrant to win the competition, would put tremendous pressure on a manager and his players who struggled to balance this season's European workload with domestic challenges.

There are also the domestic cups to factor in, though the dismal League Cup record usually ensures only a match or two in a competition neglected by too many top-flight teams, including Everton.

Preseason disruption is another potential consideration in this equation. The first leg of the Europa League second qualifying round is set for July 16 and clashes with planned involvement in the Barclays Asia Trophy from July 15-18. With this season's lacklustre, winless preseason still fresh in the memory, it is imperative the right balance exists in the build-up to next season.

The mooted two or three summer additions feels on the short side, even more so if European outings return to the agenda. Only time will tell if this prospective outcome is a good or bad thing, or if it even happens at all. Just don't expect too many glum faces if the yellow cards mount up between now and the end of the season.

Alas, speculative concerns over Europe and minor changes in league placing are the extent of the talking points at the end of this season. Illustrious targets elude those in blue, with Martinez's team aiming for three wins to rise above Stoke, West Ham and Swansea into eighth place. Though nothing to shout home about, a top-half finish in the context of this season, would at least offer a measure of hope for the term ahead.

But Swansea need only a point from their remaining matches to finish above the Blues in the final standings. The forthcoming trip to ninth-place West Ham, who sit three points clear at this point, is perhaps the best bet for overhauling another team to reach the top 10.

Sunderland arrive at Goodison on Saturday needing three points in their battle against the drop, but a post-Christmas upturn in Everton's home form and a visiting team winless on the road in 2015 -- a run of eight away games -- is reason enough to place the hosts as favourites for this one.

The main obstacle is the opposition "wanting it more", as Aston Villa did last week. Sunderland seeks goals, points, and they are certain to start quickly in their pursuit of them. A repeat of the slow start at Villa Park is something to avoid on this occasion.

Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.


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