What a fantastic sight it was seeing Everton back in Europe as the Toffees ran out 4-1 winners over Bundesliga side VfL Wolfsburg and their bouncing fans in what was our first game in this season’s Europa League campaign.
Last weekend we got our first win of the Premier League season and much-needed it certainly was; after a slow start which seen us draw twice and lose in crazy fashion to Chelsea, we needed to get that all important three points and the clean sheet that also came against West Brom was a massive boost too. It appeared that there was nothing wrong with our attacking intent and fluidity in the final third, but at the back we looked at sixes and sevens. The criticism and Twitter ‘fume’ was directed at our Captain and his central defensive partner Distin as we shipped ten goals in our opening three games. However, collectively a team needs to take responsibility for its defensive frailties and although against Albion we weren’t at our best, we got the win and as mentioned, managed to shut the home side out too in what was a morale boosting fixture in the Midlands.
Just as the Chelsea game of last season (1-0 win, after three successive draws in our opening three games) felt like the start of something, I felt that way after the final whistle at the Hawthorns last Saturday and what happened on Thursday at Goodison Park had me smiling from ear to ear and has further increased my excitement for the season ahead. This is our reward for our efforts last season; our name back amongst some top European sides and the opportunity to show teams from other leagues just what we are all about. Welcoming sides like Wolfsburg, who themselves finished 5th in one of Europe’s toughest leagues, to Goodison Park and the chance for Martinez to see his style implemented against opposition from abroad. Admittedly not everyone gets excited about the Europa League but as a younger Evertonian it was this competition (then known as the UEFA Cup) that gave me my first taste of Europe as a Blue and nobody can ever take those memories away, so to have us back in the competition and for Martinez to be taking it as seriously as he appears to be has got me thirsty to see just what we can achieve on the European stage under the dapper-looking Spaniard’s stewardship.
As for the action on Thursday the game did start a bit cagey and possession-wise the majority of our touches came in defence as both sides sized each other up. Roberto stuck with the same XI that beat West Brom and that might have surprised a few, but he obviously wants to take the competition seriously and why wouldn’t he? You don’t throw in your fringe players this early in the season and in such a vital fixture, so when I look back at my Tweets suggesting we might see the likes of Atsu or Besic start I shouldn’t have really expected any major changes to the line up from last weekend anyway. We’ve got Palace and Swansea within three days from this Sunday so only then might we see a different name or two come into the side. We set up well on Thursday and although the visitors looked to press us early on there wasn’t any major threats on the Everton goal. We soon found our stride. Naismith, who has been nothing short of excellent so far this season, was eventually on the end of a smart move between Baines and McCarthy and the Scot stumbled the ball against the Wolfsburg ‘keeper who in turn deflected the ball back onto Rodriguez and thankfully for Everton the ball found itself in the Park End net, giving us the opening goal on fifteen minutes.
That settled the nerves, European football was back and we had got ourselves in front early doors.
I don’t know about you but I enjoyed Mirallas, McGeady and Lukaku’s movement during the first half as they interchanged in between positions and looked to cut holes in the Wolfsburg back line. Naismith was also a joy to watch in a more central role behind big Rom and now that we had our noses in front you could feel the confidence growing. Wolfsburg did look decent going forward and Howard and his defence had to be on their toes all night, but when Everton went at the German outfit you knew there would eventually be more goals. McGeady had a half chance during the first half and Lukaku saw an ambitious free kick saved, whilst Mirallas continued to give the Bundesliga side a headache and throughout the team there was plenty of positives. The defence again looked like it had got its act together and Stones’ inclusion alongside Jags had Evertonians buzzing. Barry and McCarthy were running their *rses off as ever and overall the signs looked good going into the break. But before the Italian referee could blow his whistle to signal the end of the first 45, our full-backs had carved out our second goal of the evening and made half time a lot more enjoyable. Lukaku linked up well with his countryman Mirallas whose shot eventually found Baines, and the Blues left back centred for Coleman to nod home and give Martinez’ side that two-goal cushion they had been pressing for.
You got the feeling that Wolfsburg would come out all guns blazing and at 2-0 the game is still in the balance. The likes of de Bruyne looked lively going forward and Olic had forced a couple of stops out of Howard in the first half so Everton would have to be careful not to allow the visitors back into the game. But if scoring just before half time was great for Everton, then what we saw immediately after the restart was brilliant news for the home side. Questions will be asked about whether or not it was a penalty as replays showed the challenge on McGeady was outside the box but when those decisions go your way you just don’t care. Baines slotted at the Street End to make it 3-0 and the home crowd were delighted with what they were witnessing. After seeing how Wolfsburg had started the game I expected much more from them, but similarly to Everton in the opening weeks of this season’s Premier League campaign, the German side looked decent going forward but lacking confidence or organisation at the back and they found themselves 3-0 down to an Everton side who to be honest hadn’t really got out of second gear.
Soon after getting themselves a third the Blues found themselves defending an onslaught of Wolfsburg chances but Howard and his defence stood firm and performed admirably. Although Lukaku, McGeady, Mirallas and Naismith had seen less of the ball and had been quieter second half, the rest of the team had to be alert and managed to keep the Germans at bay, not allowing them to get a foothold in the game. Howard was superb, making a record-breaking 12 saves (in a Europa League fixture) from the visitors, and both Stones and Jags were also impressive too. In the opposition attack was Olic, who certainly is no mug and has been around the block a few times, but he was schooled for most of the night by young Stones who just grows with every game and every kick of the ball. As for Coleman, Baines, Barry and McCarthy, they all continued to battle and fight for every single ball and wouldn’t let Wolfsburg through on numerous occasions.
As the game wore on we all called for fresh faces, especially up top, and Martinez threw Eto’o on for Lukaku who barely had a touch during the second period. Eto’o was immediately involved, feeding Naismith who set up McCarthy, only for the Irishman to fire over at the Gwladys Street End. Could we get a fourth and put the icing on the cake, or would we allow Wolfsburg a way back into proceedings? Thankfully after another substitution (Gibson for Naismith) and our defence/Howard continuing to shut out the opposition, we did get the fourth that put the gloss on a fine night at Goodison Park and capped our return to European football. That man Eto’o (still surreal saying that) turned well and laid it through to Mirallas who slotted past the sprawling Wolfsburg ‘keeper and his porno tash, making it 4-0 to the Blues. The Belgian kissed the badge as an adoring Goodison looked on as Martinez’ side romped to an impressive victory upon their return to the competition. However, the story didn’t end there and with the final kick of the game Wolfsburg defender Rodriguez hit a brilliant free kick into the corner of the Park End net to make it 4-1 at the final whistle. It was a fine effort and if Howard and his defence were to be beaten then it was only going to be by something special. The USA stopper and his colleagues didn’t deserve to concede for all their hard work but that’s football and the most important thing was that we scored four at the other end and got off the mark in our first Europa League fixture, of which we have at least another five to look forward to in the coming months.
There were a few contenders for Man of the Match against Wolfsburg but collectively in defence and in Barry/McCarthy I believe they all deserve praise in equal measure. After a shaky looking first three games our defence has sorted itself out and Howard’s performance was probably one of his best ever. This will breed further confidence going into the Palace game when again we will need to be sharp to shut out the opposition. Although the final third of our side was less influential in the second period I enjoyed seeing them interchange and link up and we do look exciting going forward. Lukaku is still growing as a player and although he does frustrate at times be patient with him, the lad is a cert to score goals and he offers us power in an area that has severely lacked it in recent years. Mirallas has been the star man for me so far this season and the Belgian looks full of confidence, just as that man Steven Naismith does too.
As a supporter what excites me and gives me additional hope is that we’ve won our last two fixtures without a long list of names, and these will all come in and eventually play their respective parts. I know for a fact none of us have seen a squad like this for many a year and when you think that so far we’ve either not seen at all or only seen a small glimpse of the likes of Oviedo, Besic, Christian Atsu, Ross Barkley, Steven Pienaar. Gibson is returning to the fold and Osman can’t even get a look in. What about Hibbert, remember him? The talented Browning and Garbutt waiting in the wings to get their chance. Arouna Kone is surely set to return sometime soon too? Then there’s Eto’o who has so-far made only cameo appearances but you can see he is fit and raring to go, and he still possesses huge quality. None of this ‘throw Vellios on’ anymore, it’s Samuel Eto’o coming off the bench in the royal blue of Everton. These days we’ve got a vibrant blend of players who can go on to achieve great things under the guidance of our ambitious current manager. I know some of the names quoted above aren’t the most exciting, but this is what we have been crying out for; squad depth, cover, options, alternatives, youth, experience, new faces, big names, different tactics, expressive style, a manager who wants to win, European football – we’ve now got all of this and Wolfsburg might only be three points in the Europa League but to me it feels like much more.
The victory over West Brom was essential and this result, twinned with our win over Wolfsburg is the platform we must continue to build on. Forget Leicester away and the games versus Arsenal and Chelsea, we must focus on what we’ve seen over the past week from Everton and against Palace on Sunday we have another opportunity to build further momentum going into a gruelling few weeks of fixtures. We’ve got the squad of players to come in and the standard and work rate was set on Thursday by the lads who were on that pitch at Goodison Park so there is no excuses this season – if you don’t perform there are other players who will come in and take your place in the side.
Onwards we go now to take on Palace, Swansea, the sh*te, the rest of the Premier League and the rest of Europe, the games are going to come thick and fast and we need to be ready, it will be tough. We are fighting on four fronts; the Premier League, League Cup, Europa League and eventually the FA Cup too. Our squad will be put to the test and travelling to Europe will be tough in between domestic fixtures, but the more competitions you are in the more chance you have of winning things, witnessing success and creating history and I know for a fact you’ll agree with me when I say it, this is all you and I ever want for Everton Football Club, so bring it on.
Up the Toffees.