David Moyes, 45 yesterday and manager of the best performing under-financed side in British football, should have cut a contented figure. But his tension was as telling as it has so often been since the Uefa Cup defeat to Fiorentina which presaged a collapse in his club's fortunes.
Everton have mustered just three goals and a single victory in six league games since undeservedly exiting on penalties that night – the victory was 1-0 against Derby – so the last thing Moyes fancies is Aston Villa in town, intent on stealing his side's Uefa Cup place tomorrow in arguably the most significant clash between these sides since the League Cup final which Villa won in a second replay 31 years ago.
Moyes was trying hard to maintain a positive front. "If someone had said at the start of the season we'd finish above Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle then it would have been seen as a great achievement," he said. "That will probably happen." But whether Villa will be on that list is less clear. Three points behind Everton, their goals tally is 15 in three games since they succumbed to Manchester United's best display of the season.
Villa, with Ashley Young and John Carew on fire, are basking in the kind of form Everton enjoyed in February. Everton have seen Yakubu Aiyegbeni's goals dry up (he is stuck on 19) and have Tim Cahill out for the rest of the season. To Moyes' frustration, Mikel Arteta yesterday also asked for an extra day's treatment in Spain on his stomach and groin problems and is a doubt for tomorrow. Everton have broader worries about the midfielder's long-term fitness.
A month after challenging for the fourth Champions League spot, Moyes is understandably reluctant to discuss the Intertoto Cup – "We're not talking in those terms at the moment," he said. A failure to make it to the Uefa Cup might have consequences for chairman Bill Kenwright in his efforts to persuade Moyes to extend his contract, which has a year to run. Moyes knows Uefa Cup qualification has a huge bearing on attracting new players this summer. "If you can't play in England for some of the other teams then Everton is a side you should have interest in coming to." he said.
Moyes and Martin O'Neill both want to see the colour of their chairmen's money but only O'Neill can afford to joke about it. "How did the meeting with [Randy] Lerner go?" O'Neill said yesterday. "I asked for £80m and he said yes! He brought the war chest out and there it was, £80m! It was all there in dollars. Only joking."
If Everton win, they go six points clear of Villa with two games each left. If they lose, Villa's better goal difference will see them overtake the Toffees in the race for fifth place – and Moyes face will be looking even longer.