There is not too much at stake in Sunday’s last round of Premier League action. True, there is the battle for the fourth and final place in next season’s Champions League, and the fight to avoid the last relegation slot. But even in these cases, drama is not guaranteed.
Liverpool are firm favourites for the former, while Swansea seem doomed to the latter. And elsewhere, the season comes to a close with a collection of glorified friendlies — including the match between West Ham and Everton.
But for one player, this game could be one of the most important of his career. Everton defender Ramiro Funes Mori has seldom been in front of a more vital 90 minutes.
Alongside Nicolas Otamendi, Funes Mori was Argentina’ first choice centre-back for most of the World Cup qualification campaign. But in March of last year he suffered a serious knee injury playing for his country away to Bolivia. Nearly 14 months later, he has yet to start a full competitive game for club or country.
National team coach Jorge Sampaoli has been following his recovery closely. At the start of the year he made a trip to Europe, visiting various cities to sit down and talk with his most important players. Funes Mori was among them. And he was called up for the friendlies against Italy and Spain at the end of March.
But he did not get on the field. Sampaoli had a look at him in training and was alarmed — Funes Mori looked very short of competitive rhythm. It was hardly surprising after such a long layoff and without having played any proper matches to ease back into action. The thinking inside the coaching staff was that he would not be ready in time for the World Cup. The word went round. Funes Mori was unlikely to make the 23-man squad.
This has left the player in a race against time to show that he can be considered for Russia. In Everton’s games over the last few weeks he has been making late appearances off the substitutes’ bench. Last weekend against Southampton he came on at half-time. Now, all he has left is Sunday’s trip to West Ham. Funes Mori would love to play the full 90 minutes, and do so well enough to put some serious pressure on Sampaoli.
If the defender can prove his fitness, he may well be knocking at an open door. True, he is far from being the most accomplished defender that Argentina have ever produced. He would not have got near some of their teams in the past. He was frequently exposed in the World Cup qualifiers, and his total of six yellow cards from 10 matches tells its own story.
But for all of their attacking riches, Argentina currently have a dearth of top-class defenders. They also have a coach who wants to attack, pressing the opposition in their half of the field. A lack of defensive pace has made this a risky strategy for Sampaoli’s men, who have been accumulating some heavy defeats.
Funes Mori doesn’t set the world alight with his pace, but he is quicker than most of the current crop. And he has another virtue that could be of interest: He was originally a left-back, before River Plate converted him to a centre-back. In reality he is best described as a mixture of the two positions — which makes him an obvious choice to operate on the left side of the back three, the position that he filled for Everton last weekend.
Sampaoli originally tried a back three with the Argentina team, only to decide that with the resources available a back four probably made more sense. In truth, his team have not convinced with either formation. A fully fit Funes Mori might make it viable for the coach to think in terms of experimenting once more with a back three formation.
First, though, the player has to show that he is fit enough for the task ahead. And the only chance he has left is this Sunday away to West Ham.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.