Romelu Lukaku will be known by most Evertonians under the age of 30, for the foreseeable future at least, as the best striker they have seen wearing the famous royal blue. His strength, pace and lethal finishing make him an all-round talent that has the potential to mix it with the best in the world. Had he managed to keep his mouth shut, he would have been the complete package. Lukaku will leave Evertonians with a bitter taste in their mouth, but also with a host of fond memories. Everton’s record scorer in the Premier League and in Europe often helped the Blues to some superb victories – one was the ultimate in smash-and-grab jobs. It was no classic for the quality of Everton’s play, but a trip to Wolfsburg in 2014 was certainly memorable nonetheless. Now turn down your music before I call the police, and take a short trip down memory lane.
Two teams, and only two teams, won away at the Volkswagen Arena in the 2014/15 season: Everton, in the Europa League group stage, and Napoli in the quarter-finals. Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Dortmund, Borussia Mönchengladbach and many sides whose name doesn’t begin with B, all tried to topple Dieter Hecking’s side on their own back yard, and failed. Going into the group stage clash with Everton, Die Wolfe had lost just four times in their first 18 games of the season: away to Bayern, Hertha Berlin, Schalke, and Roberto Martinez’s Blues. Blessed with attacking quality from the likes of Bas Dost, Kevin de Bruyne, Ivan Perisic and, er, Nicklas Bendtner, Wolfsburg had high hopes of winning Group H and perhaps even the Europa League itself.
Everton, still coming down from Martinez’s exhilarating debut season, were optimistic themselves. Fresh from an underwhelming World Cup showing, Belgium star Lukaku was signed up for £28m. How people laughed. How quiet they are now. League form was failing to meet the high standard set by the previous campaign, however. Promoted Leicester claimed a 2-2 draw on the opening day, thanks to a late Chris Wood equaliser – his only Premier League goal. Everton, that. The Blues led Arsenal 2-0 with seven minutes left, but the Gunners still clawed back the deficit to earn a point. Everton, that. The 6-3 home smashing by Chelsea meant the leaky Toffees had equalled the record for most goals conceded in the opening three games of the season. Apart from the opening day, the highest the Blues would be all season was ninth.
Europe brought some cheer in spite of the domestic malaise. Buoyed by the pure madness that was Tony Hibbert and Aiden McGeady lining up alongside the likes of Lukaku and Samuel Eto’o, Everton were well-placed to qualify for the knockout stages by the time they rocked up in Niedersachsen. Wolfsburg had been humbled when they came to Goodison. Steven Naismith forced an own goal from Ricardo Rodriguez, before Seamus Coleman added a second on the cusp of half-time. A Leighton Baines penalty made it 3-0, before Kevin Mirallas rounded off a thrashing in the last minute. Even a stunning free-kick by Ricardo Rodriguez, the last kick of the match, couldn’t take the gloss off an excellent performance. A Lille side featuring Idrissa Gana Gueye were also swept aside at Goodison; Leon Osman, Phil Jagielka and Naismith rounded off a 3-0 win. It was less straightforward away from home. Eto’o rescued a point at Krasnodar, and the 12 million-strong Biblical swarm of Evertonians that converged on Lille witnessed a lifeless 0-0 stalemate. Krasnodar’s penchant for draws meant Wolfsburg dropped more points, and so victory in the penultimate round of games would secure top spot in Group H for the Blues.
It was the home side, who had won eight games on the spin until defeat to Schalke five days before the European tie, who established control of proceedings. Perisic gave Everton a warning of what was to come straight away with a volley across the face of goal, before finding the side-netting after a sumptuous through-ball by de Bruyne. Luke Garbutt was selected by Martinez with Baines out injured, and the former Leeds left-back almost helped Everton into the lead with a corner that Sylvain Distin directed towards goal with a downwards header. The crossbar came to Wolfsburg’s aid before Tim Howard came to Everton’s, pawing away an Aaron Hunt strike.
Wolfsburg then took the lead – or so they thought. De Bruyne centred from the right wing, Bendtner aimed a lazy flick and the ball and missed, but Perisic ghosted in to slot the ball home. The hosts celebrated, only for a controversial offside call to turn joy to anger. Perisic was clearly onside. It was a brilliant call. And one that Everton took full advantage of.
What came next was Lukaku at his bustling, clinical best. Everton scrambled the ball clear and Mirallas reacted fastest, instantly releasing his international team-mate. Lukaku’s first touch was atrocious – please, try to contain your surprise – but he brushed off opponent and good friend Junior Malanda. His second and third touches took him clear of the defence and in on goal. Diego Benaglio is tough to beat but Lukaku made it look easy, tucking the ball into the bottom corner and sparking jubilant scenes in the packed away end.
The second half began with Bendtner seeing a goal correctly chalked off, before Everton had their clearest chance of the match. Osman jinked through the Wolfsburg midfield and laid the ball off for Lukaku, whose strike was parried by Benaglio. There, eight yards out, was Aiden McGeady. The goal was at his mercy. The ball sat up nicely. This was it, the all-important second goal that would seal the win. McGeady opened up his body.
McGeady missed the open goal.
Spurred on by the Irishman’s astonishing blunder, the Germans poured forwards. Perisic was giving Hibbert a torrid time, and the Croatian again turned the Blues veteran inside-out before drilling a shot into the side netting. Wolfsburg were committing plenty of men forward but were vulnerable to a counter-attack, and so it proved. Lukaku collected the ball, deep in his own half, under pressure from two men in green. He shrugged them both off and played a perfect ball through the home defence, which Mirallas latched onto. The winger turned Luis Gustavo twice and then struck an effort across Benaglio into the far corner. Wolfsburg had 60 per cent of the possession and 39 shots to Everton’s 11, but it was the Blues who left Hecking feeling like a distressed Football Manager player. There was time for the hosts to hit the post, but it was too late for a comeback. Three points and top spot secured, Evertonians set off for home with memories of an outstanding European away day to savour.
At times, Lukaku ambled around the pitch looking uninterested. Sometimes, he sulked more than he tried geeing up himself or his team-mates. Sometimes he was just poor. Yet, more often than not, Lukaku made the difference. And there were times the Belgian provided the inspiration when Everton needed it most. Wolfsburg away was one of those times.
Cheers, Rom. Thanks for the goals.