Everton always find a way to make you feel better about everything, don’t they?
Even those who felt skies were cloudy could see the silver lining at the weekend with an excellent win away to West Brom. Just to compound it we kept one of those clean sheet things that are all the rage apparently. Whether Philippe Senderos rattling Mario Balotelli and Liverpool’s cage was the icing on the cake or not is your own prerogative. No comment. Best of all, with the first win of the season under our belts, we can delve into a bit of continental competition. That’s right. European football returns. Our chance to inflict Everton on the mainland. Think of the away trips to new outposts, the Goodison nights under the lights with exotic guests in town. Obviously Thursday night is the best time for football. Because when the game ends you know there’s just one more day before the weekend, which brings even more Everton – albeit on a Sunday. Bryan Oviedo and Arouna Kone have graced a football pitch in Everton blue for the first time in a while. Could a new stadium be in the offing too? Perhaps. All in all it’s a magical time.
First up – and I’ve dragged this out to look as fully German as possible – is Verein für Leibesübungen Wolfsburg Fußball – Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung. Anyone who’s not a tit calls them Wolfsburg and leaves it at that. More on them in a bit, but for now let’s shift to the least exotic place imaginable; West Bromwich.
It was a very positive performance. Two things are obvious – it was a good result. You can’t argue with 2-0 at any time. Also, it doesn’t mark the end of all worries about the team and how they play. You’d have to be a special kind of deluded to think the defence is now completely fixed. The full backs allowed West Brom’s wide players too much room to deliver crosses and in the centre those crosses weren’t exactly dealt with in a ice-cool fashion. Teams with more lethality than the average kitten have scored past us, but West Brom don’t have it and all the better for us. But like I said, the score was 2-0 and it’s hard to pick too many holes in that.
Both goals were a bit hilarious in how the usually reliable Ben Foster and the perennially tramp-looking Jonas Olsson decided Everton really, really deserved to net a couple without much effort, but individual attacking performances were particularly exciting. Romelu Lukaku’s curled finish after less than two minutes was delicious, and he followed that by being confident in possession, fleet-footed and powerful; the Lukaku we felt inclined to spend Bill Kenwright’s pension money on in the summer. Kevin Mirallas was exceptional, moving faster than the West Brom defenders could think, and both were confident enough to take players on and have shots. Aiden McGeady did much of the same when he cut inside from the right, which is where he has the greatest impact. All three need to work on some wild shooting, but apart from that I got the impression that we’ll score a lot of goals this season. Steven Naismith missed an absolute sitter but after all the boss things the August Player of the Month has done so far we can forgive the odd clanger.
Enough of that, because now it’s time to cover Europe. Some people love European competitions and some have little to no time for it. But competing with sides from all around the continent is a fresh and exciting challenge. Playing the likes of West Brom and Burnley each week doesn’t do much for your football world view. The fact we’ve got a tough group is even better. Rather than playing the West Broms of Europe we’ve got Wolfsburg, Lille and the joker in the pack, FC Kransodar. Alright. No-one is keen on that lot. But even without an official coach planned some Evertonians are going to sail into that warzone bevvied up and ready for a good time. I salute you. Wolfsburg and Lille could easily be in the Champions League next season. For all we know, so could we. If we fail there’s a lot to learn. If not, we’re proving ourselves beyond the context of our own league. That’s a major bonus for our reputation.
Let’s compare to our last European venture, 2008/09. AEK Athens were demolished at Goodison at in Greece (Tony Hibbert being captain there is the reason AEK have the honour of being the side he slotted past in his testimonial. Don’t worry. That was probably the nicest riot they’ve witnessed.) BATE Borisov were slain by Tim Cahill in Belarus but at home we played a youth team and lost 1-0. Those featuring that night included Shkodran Mustafi, who of course has gone on and done nothing massively prestigious of note (Grrrr, MOOOYYYESSS and all that) and Seamus Coleman, who I think went on to be absolutely boss somewhere. Benfica, a side of actual European pedigree, beat us 5-0 in Portugal and 3-0 in England. That was the first hint. The second and last was a 3-0 reverse against Sporting Lisbon that saw us crash out of Europe. What it said is that we weren’t ready to actually compete a continental competition. As penance we waited five years. Now we’re back to have another crack, and this time we need to make a better fist of it.
The last squad we sent into a European game: Howard; Baines, Senderos, Yobo, Neville; Bilyaletdinov, Arteta, Pienaar, Donovan, Osman; Saha. Bench: Nash, Jagielka, Coleman, Gosling, Rodwell, Yakubu, Anichebe.
Now…back to 2014. Howard and Baines started on that fateful Lisbon night, and should start again. Seamus Coleman’s Everton career almost ended after a horror show in the 5-0 defeat to Benfica, but now he’s boss so who’s arsed? Exactly. Jagielka or Distin alongside John Stones, who was about three years old the last time we were in Europe. Something like that. Gareth Barry was a titan again against West Brom, and although James McCarthy seemed nervy at times, the pair still provide a good backbone. Mirallas, McGeady and Naismith are all in good form, which bodes well for us, while Romelu Lukaku will be looking to start a real run of goalscoring form. Osman played quite well after coming off the bench at the Hawthorns, so he should feature. Samuel Eto’o is fit and available, while Atsu and Besic also provide options.
VfL Wolfsburg will provide stiff opposition. In a more competitive Bundesliga than ever they finished fifth. But to be honest it’s all a bit underwhelming. Strange place, Wolfsburg. For the uninitiated, the city itself was founded by the Nazis – never a good start – as a factory town for Volkswagen. As a city entirely centred around this, they’ve tried desperately to instill some sort of culture into the place. Just to surmise, Wolfsburg is twinned with Luton. Exactly. In football terms they did next to nothing before some major investment led to them competing in the top flight. In 2008/9 die Wölfe snatched the league title off Bayern München with some style. But times change. Felix Magath is off being a laughing stock at Fulham, their Holy Trinity of Misimovic, Dzeko and Grafite split up and despite even more investment coming in, apparently Steve McClaren wasn’t the answer. Who knew.
So now Wolfsburg are a side promising to relive the glory days of, well, five years ago, but don’t look like doing it any time soon. Dieter Hecking’s team mostly struggle in defence, which on Thursday should consist of former Swiss international Diego Benaglio (the one picking the ball out of the net every few minutes against France at the World Cup), Jung, Knoche and Rodriguez. Ricardo Rodriguez, who played for Switzerland against England last week, is recognisable as one of the most dangerous left backs in Europe right now, alongside our own Leighton. Last season they kept just five clean sheets in the league, and the only side they’ve kept out so far this campaign is second tier side SV Darmstadt, who they beat in the Cup. In the league it’s 17 consecutive games in which Wolfsburg have conceded at least one goal. See, we look fine in context, don’t we? There are options in midfield. Brazil midfielder Luiz Gustavo, who you may remember playing one of modern football’s worst howlers (along with the rest of his team) as the Selecao were trounced 7-1 by Germany in the World Cup semi final, should play. Malanda, Arnold, Caliguri and the danger man, ex-Chelsea winger Kevin de Bruyne, may also start, but Vieirinha, Hunt and Guilavogui are also options. If you don’t follow German football and have stopped reading by now, I don’t blame you.
A couple of more recognisable faces are up front though; Ivica Olic scored fifteen last season for Wolfsburg and has two already this season. He’s a lethal finisher. On the complete opposite end of the scale is Nicklas Bentdner, who could come off the bench and provide a few laughs before he pokes home a 93rd minute equaliser. This is a side similar to us; they play 4-2-3-1 and like to attack. The difference is their lack of defensive discipline, which is a problem for many Bundesliga sides right now. They are very much open to the counter attack. The more Wolfsburg come at us, the more holes there will be when we turn the screw.
So that’s it for now. The European adventure begins again for Everton with a serious challenge to our newfound sense of continental class before us. Let’s enjoy it though, because before you know it we’re playing Crystal Palace and it’s just not as exciting. Auf geht’s, Everton.