The start of another European Adventure, this time in a new competition, the Europa League... replacing the old Uefa Cup. A complex format that doesn't bear explanation... with myriad European minnows as target practice for the bigger also-rans who can't get in the Champions League. By virtue of finishing 5th, Everton enter at the fourth qualifying round, essentially a two-leg play-off for getting into the League group stage proper.
Joleon Lescott dropped after displaying a "bad attitude" in training, as uncertainty over his future continues under intense pressure from Man City. He was present in the stand, chatting amiably with the injured Arteta. Neville in at centre-back in his place, with Rodwell starting in midfield.
An early scare when Hubink beat the offside trap by a mile and looked to go one-on-one with Howard, who came to the edge of the area to intercept, more the man than the ball, but the ball had been played already and Howard got the benefit of the decision, Hubink going in the ref's book.
Everton's attack started to build better, but a weak shot from Pienaar and a flick-on by Saha didn't reqlly threaten, while Sigma weren't all that bad themselves. A fantastic strike by Ordash needed a firm on-handed save from Howard.
Osman did well to got on a break but could not carry it through and any chance quickly evaporated. At the other end, Fellaini was very lucky as a clumsy challenge was again looked upon favourably by the ref.
Better attacking verve finally paid off when Osman won a corner then a throw-in, Fellaini feeding a superb cross in for a perfect striker's goal from top scorers Louis Saha, who had looked well up for it. Saha had nipped ahead of the keeper to turn the ball in with consummate skill. Nice goal.
Everton looked more confident with the goal on the board and attacke4d with more conviction, Osman winning a free-kick that Baines banged in to the wall... but it rebounded across to Rodwell who shot hard and at mid-height through a crowded area and past the seemingly unsighted goalie for an excellent second goal.
Another free-kick early in the second half, lofted in by Baines, was punched out by Drobisz but only for Pienaar to tee it up for Rodwell, who hammered a beautiful strike into the far top corner of net for an excellent third goal.
Neville was booked for a poor late tackle. Another superb strike form distance by Rodwell fizzed just past the post. Osman so nearly scored off a bad clearance but the keeper just managed to touch it wide.
Louis Saha scored another excellent goal, taking the ball from Osman, turning and striking the ball perfectly along the ground wide of the despairing keeper and in off the post. Beautiful!
Rodwell and Saha, both on a hat-trick, were then withdrawn by David Moyes as Everton played out the game, a far better performance than Saturday's shocking capitulation to Arsenal, and some fantastic goals too boot! .
Everton completed the first act of what the fans hope will become full redemption for the horror show against Arsenal last Saturday by brushing aside Sigma Olomouc's early challenge and eventually running out convincing 4-0 winners in the first leg of this Europa League playoff.
The Blues will take a commanding advantage and a clean sheet to the Czech Republic in a fortnight's time and, just as importantly, will make the short trip to Burnley having rediscovered some of their mojo as they look to start their Premier League campaign in earnest on Sunday.
While the team as whole went a long way to atoning for the performance at Arsenal, it was two players who did not start in that 6-1 defeat — though they probably should have — who lit up Goodison Park this evening with two goals apiece. Louis Saha took his tally to three goals in two games with a goal in each half that bookended a pair of stunning strikes by Jack Rodwell that together broke Sigma's resistance and helped the Blues recover from a somewhat jittery start.
Given the result they were coming off and the fact that they were having to adjust to Phil Neville playing as an unorthodox centre back alongside Joseph Yobo, it was understandable, but it didn't do the home faithful's nerves any good to see the Czech side demonstrating just how difficult a tie this could be by controlling the early going.
The visitors came out of the gate strongly and should have been awarded a penalty within six minutes of the first whistle when Tim Howard clattered through Jakub Petr as he tried to take the ball around him and the striker tumbled to the turf. Despite Howard not having got any part of the ball, referee Lucilio Batista mystifyingly waved play on.
A minute later and in an almost carbon-copy situation, Sigma sprung the Everton offside trap again with consummate ease and Michal Hubnik was in one-on-one with the 'keeper, only this time he elected to feign a foul and was booked for simulation by the Portuguese official.
The Czechs retained control though, moving the ball around with precision and speed while Everton were labouring to produce much at the other end with a frustrating reliance on the long ball. Saha, starting in place of Jo up front, was looking a little isolated but he did manage an early flicked header that bounced well wide of the far post before Steven Pienaar tried his luck from 20 yards but his weak effort was saved.
Back at the other end, another incisive Sigma move released Ordos in space on the left side of the area and his fierce strike was pushed away brilliantly by a flying save from Howard as the Blues continued to look vulnerable.
Mid-way through the first half, however, the home side found their feet a little and the pendulum began to swing in their direction. Leon Osman, who had again been woeful up to that point, tested Petr Drobisz for the first time with a deflected effort that was spinning under the crossbar until the 'keeper palmed it over, while Saha made space for a shot from 20 yards but ballooned his effort disappointingly.
10 minutes before half-time, though, the Blues made the breakthrough. Marouane Fellaini played a one-two with Tony Hibbert off a throw-in down the right before advancing towards the byline and whipping a low cross towards the near post. Saha, in typically predatory fashion, got ahead of his marker and turned the ball past Drobisz.
Saha opens the scoring with a predator's goal
1-0 became 2-0 just six minutes later when Osman was bundled over in a promising position outside the Sigma area. Leighton Baines' free kick cannoned off the wall but fell invitingly in the space ahead of Rodwell and he drilled an unerring shot through a crowd of player and straight past the unsighted 'keeper.
Having survived a scare just before the interval when Ladislav Onofrej's dangerous cross flashed across the face of Howard's goal and Hubnik failed to make telling contact, the Blues took that 2-0 advantage into the dressing room where Moyes delivered his instructions for the second half.
Presumably through a combination of what the manager said and the confidence that comes from a fairly comfortable lead, Everton emerged from the break playing much better football. Now they were stroking the ball around confidently with the neat interchanges between the likes of Baines, Pienaar, Fellaini and Cahill that were so pleasing at times last season.
Eight minutes after the restart, Fellaini was felled in a similar area as was Osman for the second goal and when Baines' was fisted away unconvincingly by Drobisz, Pienaar touched it on for Rodwell who smashed the ball into the top corner. It was another mesmerising strike from a kid just 18 years old, easily eclipsing his earlier effort.
Rodwell smashes home his second on the night
After surviving a scare not long afterwards where he stayed prone on the pitch with a suspected sprain following a collision with an opposition midfielder, Rodwell came within a yard of notching a hat-trick when he arrowed a shot just wide.
Everton were flying now and Osman almost capitalised on a sliced clearance with a first-time shot that Drobisz tipped past his far post and a superb Baines run was stopped unceremoniously by an illegal block that went unpunished — whatever happened to the obsctruction rule, anyway?
Sigma signalled briefly that could still cause a problem or two, though, first when substitute Pavel Sultes fired into the side-netting from a close angle and Fellaini tripped Hubnik in what, again, looked like a clear foul in the area but the referee still wasn't interested in awarding the visitors a penalty kick.
Instead, at the other end, Saha capped an excellent performance with a fine individual goal, skipping past his marker to make space for a shot before despatching a low shot inside the far post to make it 4-0.
Saha celebrates his second and Everton's fourth
Saha, Rodwell and Pienaar made way soon afterwards to raucous applause from the stands, relieved by Dan Gosling, Jo and James Vaughan, but the majority of the evening's work was done and only Jo had a real opportunity to make his mark on the evening but he was thwarted from a tight angle by the 'keeper with Vaughan baying for a pass on the other side of the six-yard box.
All in all, the perfect response to Saturday's debacle and a welcome recovery from a less-than-impressive opening that belied the goal feast to come by the home team. Rodwell, Saha — not just for two impressive strikes apiece but also for their all-round contribution — Cahill, Neville and Fellaini in particular stood out for special mention. Fellaini looked assured, inventive and closer to his best moments last season, Cahill was ably supported by Rodwell in eventually controlling midfield, and Neville did not look out of place at all in defence.
The knocks that a few key players received during the game as it became more testy and physical around the hour mark will have come as a reminder, though, of the fragility of Moyes's squad. The promised reinforcements are as vital as ever despite the rosier picture painted by both tonight's result and the performance that achieved it, but more than anything, Moyes will be glad of a shot in the arm for team morale.
Player Ratings: Howard 7, Hibbert 7, Baines 7, Yobo 7, Neville 7, Rodwell 8*, Cahill 8, Osman 6, Fellaini 8, Pienaar 7, Saha 8
Everton's bid for European glory begins under heavy clouds this week following their opening-day humiliation at the hands of Arsenal on Saturday and the ongoing drama with Joleon Lescott which escalated during the preparations for the visit of Sigma Olomouc.
The defender trained apart from the first-team squad this week and was then dropped from the squad for the Europa League 4th Qualifying Round first leg match against the Czech side after David Moyes took exception to the deterioration in his attitude. Hoping to pave the way for a big-money move to Manchester City, Lescott submitted a formal transfer request last week which was rejected by Moyes and though the manager hinted that he could be allowed to leave if City come up with the right offer, his general rhetoric suggests that he hopes that the player eventually changes his mind after the transfer window closes at the end of the month.
Meanwhile, if the 6-1 collapse to Arsenal is anything to go by, the saga has had a massively destabilising effect on the rest of the team and with Phil Jagielka still sidelined until at least November, Lescott's absence leaves a gaping hole in the centre of Moyes's defence.
Phil Neville or Jack Rodwell are the two most likely candidates to fill in alongside Joseph Yobo, though how the squad could be allowed to get to the point where it is stretched so thin in such a key area of the pitch defies belief.
Further changes are possible elsewhere in the line-up as well. If Neville is handed central defensive responsibilities, Rodwell will likely take his place in midfield and there are opportunities for Dan Gosling and Louis Saha, both of whose appearances as substitutes against the Gunners eclipsed the performances of the players they replaced.
Sigma may be something of an unknown quantity but the Blues won't be underestimating them after they trounced Aberdeen 8-1 on aggregate in the last round. Moyes will be wary of the parallels with Dinamo Bucharest four years ago and will have his work cut out to focus his players away from the Lescott ructions, not to mention their weekend drubbing, and onto the task at hand.
Things could go either way. This is a team known for the resilience of its spirit but also has a propensity to struggle in the early going of a campaign if it starts badly. Much will rest on the shoulders of Neville once the game gets underway as his leadership will be key from wherever he is playing and, of course, the depleted defence will need to be 100% focused as they try and prevent the visitors from grabbing the advantage of an away goal.
Obviously, if they can shore up at the back, the main task becomes getting things to click at the other end, something that the Blues found difficult at times towards the end of last season. There the key man could be Tim Cahill if he is pushed forward into his preferred attacking role behind the striker, though a good shift from Marouane Fellaini could be just as productive.
The crowd will also have a big part to play and while they're likely to be nervous going into the game, early success on the pitch could really get the terraces bouncing and help carry the team to a badly-needed victory.
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|4 the Game||Report|
|Rodwell (77' Gosling)|
|Pienaar (82' Vaughan )|
|Saha (80' Jô)|
|Subs not used|
|Lescott (disciplinary action)|
|SIGMA OLOMOUC (4-4-2)|
|Otepka (65' Bajer)|
|Ordos (46' Sultes)|
|Subs not used|