Ronald Koeman eyeing strong finish with Champions League possibility for Everton
Everton manager Ronald Koeman has not ruled out a strong finish to the season launching the club into Champions League contention.
A week ago the Dutchman had targeted Manchester United, one place and one point above them, as their immediate priority but with fourth-placed Arsenal now only seven points away he believes they could yet spring a major surprise.
Last season Koeman got Southampton into the Europa League with a late charge which saw them take 23 points from their final 10 matches to leap into sixth.
It will take something even more special to catapult Everton into the top four - where they have finished just once in the Premier League era - especially with the six other sides already battling it out among themselves.
But last weekend's 6-3 win over Bournemouth has raised confidence levels further and after taking 17 points from a possible 21 they certainly have the momentum.
"You have changed your opinion now," Koeman said when asked whether Champions League qualification was a possibility.
"You were always speaking about top six and now you're saying we need to talk about the first four.
"Everything is possible because everybody knows the Premier League is so tough, and it's not about the opponent you play.
"I did not change my mind (on this season's aim), it's step by step. If we don't win this Saturday, we'll talk about maybe the first eight. We need to be realistic.
"The next target now is the team above us which we need to catch.
"You can't compare Everton with Southampton. Yes, normally, my teams are always in a good state until the end of the season.
"That's what we try to plan: you have more possibilities to win the game if the team is really fit.
"With Southampton, we won seven of the last eight - if we keep that at Everton then, yes, maybe something special will be possible this season."
Having swept aside one struggling side in Bournemouth last week Everton face a similar task on Saturday as they head to Middlesbrough, who have not won since mid-December.
With striker Romelu Lukaku in top form after four goals last weekend to make him the Premier League's leading scorer, the Toffees are favourites to win at the Riverside but Koeman is taking nothing for granted.
"It's not about the fixtures. Sometimes I prefer to play Arsenal at home than Middlesbrough at home," he said.
"Every game is difficult and maybe our game for this Saturday is more difficult than Tottenham away, it's all about yourself.
"It's a difficult one because they fight for the points, they fight to stay in the Premier League, and we know that can be really tough.
"Don't make those mistakes.
"My experience in the Premier League is sometimes you get more points against the top six than the teams fighting relegation. They fight for their lives."