Of all the sides Everton could potentially face in the third qualifying round of the Europa League, only one was a familiar sight. As it happens, it is SK Brann Bergen that Ronald Koeman’s Blues will face, if the Norwegian side are able to overcome MFK Ruzomberok. The class of 2017, bolstered by the likes of Wayne Rooney, Sandro Ramirez and Davy Klaassen, will look to make short work of Brann – but two members of the Everton old guard already know how it’s done. Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines, the latter an unused substitute, are the only players still in the Everton fold who were in the squad for the last time the Toffees took on the side currently second in Norway’s Eliteserien. In fact, more of that side have worn the red and white of Sunderland in the past year than Everton’s royal blue. Those who did feature at Goodison Park on February 21, 2008 enjoyed one of the best European wins that Everton have ever mustered – which hopefully bodes well for this season’s potential clash.
Everton had made short work of the group phase, winning all four games. Larissa and eventual Uefa Cup – as it was then – Zenit, were easily dealt with at Goodison. Those wins were complimented by memorable away days in Nürnburg and Alkmaar, the former still a trip talked about with great fondness by the Blues that made the trip to Germany. The group stage coming to a close coincided with an upturn in Everton’s league fortunes, and David Moyes’ outfit were on a run of 10 wins in their last 16 Premier League fixtures going into the clash with Brann.
Mons Ivar Mjelde’s side were named Norwegian champions in December, but the new campaign was still a month away when a fully match-fit Everton came to town off the back of a 1-0 win over Reading four days previously. The Blues’ opponents were not expected to cause too many issues; in fact, they had barely scraped through their group. A narrow win over Dinamo Zagreb and a draw against Rennes were enough to see them through in third place behind Hamburg and Basel, both of whom beat them. Everton made no mistake in the first leg. Though Brann held them off for the first hour, Leon Osman broke their resolve with a curling effort and perennial European super-sub Victor Anichebe converted a Joleon Lescott cross in the closing stages to put Everton in control of the tie.
With one foot firmly in the round of 16 and the weekend off thanks to their failure to get past the third round of the FA Cup, Everton went into the second leg confident of finishing the job. In the end, they would do so with aplomb.
Mjelde suggested that Brann would need “the miracle of a lifetime” to progress – either that, or serious Everton complacency. And complacent Everton were in a poor opening period where the visitors were as likely to score as the hosts. The Brann coach was fuming as a Lee Carsley challenge on Njugo Demba-Nyren went unpunished with the Gambian bearing down on goal. Erlend Hanstveit and Thorstein Helstad were both denied by Tim Howard, but Brann failed to take advantage of a period of promising play. They would come to regret it.
Everton had struggled to put together any decent passing moves, but their first brought a goal. Nuno Valente and Steven Pienaar’s neat interchange brought the ball into Tim Cahill’s possession, and the Australian’s neat flick gave Yakubu the chance to curl home the opener. The goal lifted a huge weight off royal blue shoulders. From there, Everton did not look back. A few minutes later, Mikel Arteta fed Johnson, and the striker spun away from Hanstveit before drilling a shot that Hakon Opdal could not prevent from making its way into the far corner.
Brann had missed out on the chance to meet Norwegian rivals Rosenberg in the next round (Rosenberg also failed to progress, with Italian side Fiorentina overcoming them). With all hope of progression dead and buried, they simply wilted in the face of relentless Everton pressure. Cahill and Lee Carsley were given an early rest, with Manuel Fernandes and Tony Hibbert replacing them. It did nothing to halt the spell of Everton dominance, Johnson denied by the woodwork soon after the substitutions. The former Crystal Palace striker was causing the Brann defence all manner of problems, and after a clever run distracted three of the back line, Yakubu was left in plenty of space to collect a Pienaar pass, wrong-foot two more Brann men with a brilliant dummy, and tuck home his second goal of the contest.
It was not long until the fourth goal went in, though it was the away side that got it. Petter Vaagan Moen hit the most innocuous of free-kicks which Tim Howard decided to try and save one-handed. Much to the American’s embarrassment, the ball skidded over his outstretched arm and in. Loose play from Fernandes than gifted Helstad a chance, an effort which skidded wide. Everton were only knocked off-course briefly, however. Pienaar fed Arteta, and the Spaniard’s effort took a wicked deflection off Azar Karadas (who, incidentally, is still on Brann’s books) and spun into the corner.
Pienaar was very much conducting proceedings. The wing wizard turned provider once again, with a cross to the back post converted by Yakubu. The Nigerian became the third Everton player to score a European hat-trick, after Alan Ball and Andy Gray – Romelu Lukaku has since added his name to the prestigious list – and just in time, too; David Moyes was about to bring Anichebe on for the rotund forward when he notched his timely third.
Having been laying up chances for his team-mates all night, Pienaar then took it upon himself to get Everton’s sixth. A fierce effort went just over the bar, before the South African rattled the post. The woodwork certainly took a pounding that night – Vaagan Moen struck the frame of the goal at the opposite end.
There was time for one more goal. Johnson received the ball from – guess who – Pienaar, and rattled a superb strike into the top corner from close to 30 yards out. Everton had saved the best goal for last on a superb night at Goodison, with a biggest ever European win secured. Or, depending on your understanding of ‘biggest’, at least level with the two 5-0 thrashings of Finn Harps in 1978.
Everton only managed eight shots on target, but six of them found the back of Opdal’s net. It was, after a sluggish opening, an excellent night of European football. Hopefully there will be more of the same this season, starting in July – possibly against Brann Bergen once more.