Of all of Everton's fixtures in what was a tough Group H draw, the long trip to Russia was, arguably, the most daunting. The midweek flight over 2,000+ miles, further than past visits to Belarus and Ukraine, to the unfamiliar surroundings near the Black Sea coupled with the largely unknown quantity represented by Krasnodar meant that this was always going to be a testing fixture.
It proved to be exactly that. A point would have been a satisfactory return and that is what the Blues will take back to Merseyside after just about coming through a stern examination at at the hands of the Russian League's Bulls, at least for the first two thirds of the match. It required hard work, more than a smattering of fortune and no small measure of patience but Roberto Martinez's men earned a precious draw thanks to Samuel Eto'o's second goal for the club.
Much will be made of the performance from a team that featured five changes from the side that started at Anfield on Saturday and which struggled for significant periods for the first hour to contain Krasnodar's rapid-fire attacking style. The Russians had scored eight goals without reply at home during the qualifying rounds and even without the suspended Joaozinho it was easy to see why.
The movement and quick passing interchanges between the front quartet of Marat Izmailov, the Brazlilan Ari, Mauricio Pereyra, and Ricardo Laborde were a source of regular consternation for Everton's back line, although much of it could have been avoided had Martinez's players been able to take better custody of the ball. A succession of loose passes in midfield had the Blues on the back foot on a number of occasions but a combination of last-ditch tackles and Tim Howard thwarted the home side until they eventually made the breakthrough two minutes before half time.
With James McCarthy remaining behind on Merseyside to rest a tight and fatigued quad, Darron Gibson was handed his second start of the season and charged with forming the defensive midfield pairing with Gareth Barry. The Irishman was guilty of a couple of glaringly poor passes inside the first 10 minutes, though, as Krasnodar implemented a strategy of pressing the defence high up the pitch.
Neither of those two early gifts of possession were punished, nor were subsequent giveaways by Gareth Barry, Leon Osman, Christian Atsu and the otherwise imperious John Stones over the course of the first half but it took an excellent blocking tackle from Phil Jagielka, a couple of good saves from Howard to deny Odil Ahmedov and Izmailov, and Stones recovering brilliantly from his own error to keep the scores goalless heading towards the interval.
At the other end, where Atsu was lively but profligate with the ball and Aiden McGeady was proving to be Everton's best player going forward, Barry forced a diving save from Andrey Dikan, Stones looped a free header narrowly wide and McGeady tested the 'keeper with a decent low drive. But, in stark contrast to their effervescent hosts, the Toffees were generally too slow to move the ball forward, with Osman in particular wanting far too much time on the ball, and were repeatedly wasteful with the final pass.
On the balance of the first half it was only a matter of time before Krasnodar made the breakthrough, which they did by seizing on indecision in Everton's defence. Jagielka was sucked towards a dinked ball forward that eventually dropped behind him, by which time Ari had collected it and, using Pereyra as the decoy, he advanced on Howard before firing past the American to make it 1-0 at half time.
What was known about the Russians beforehand had largely been borne out in the first period: they like to attack and move the ball quickly to the frontmen. Martinez's gameplan of biding his time was probably a sound one but it relied on better retention of the ball from his goalkeeper, defence and midfield to prevent it coming straight back.
The Catalan made what would prove to be his only substitution at the interval when he withdrew Atsu and introduced Romelu Lukaku to provide a physical presence and a greater ability to hold the ball up in the final third. There was, however � for the first 15-20 minutes of the secod half, at least � a yawning chasm between the front two and the midfield that meant there was precious little link-up play in the final third for the Blues and the pattern of the match continued to favour Krasnodar.
A succession of corners were dealt with comfortably by the Everton defence but the Russians threatened to double their lead when Jagielka was caught in possession in an unforgiveably dangerous area in front of his own penalty area but the attack was snuffed out before it could trouble Howard, another effort from Ari looped just over, and substitute Wanderson's mazy dribble past four static whirte shirts ended with his shot coming off the crossbar with the goalkeeper helplessly rooted to the spot.
Krasnodar's high-energy pressing game had taken its toll as the match moved into its last third, though, and Everton began to come more and more into the contest from an attacking perspective. Close control from Lukaku inside the opposition area engineered enough space for a low shot that Dikan parried behind for a corner and that was followed by three more set-piece opportunities, the last of which prompted the equalising goal.
Baines got the ball back following a clearance from his own corner and when he swung the ball in, Eto'o stole into the space between two defenders to guide the ball inside the far post off his out-stretched leg. It could prove to be a priceless equaliser in the wider context of the battle to get out of Group H and it underscored the shift in momentum that had taken place over the previous quarter of an hour. Indeed, Everton would press for a winner in the closing stages but the closest they came was a downward header from Lukaku that Dikan batted away from his near post. It would have been an unjust winner but would have been welcome nonetheless.
Still, an important point keeps the Blues top of the group and on course for the next phase if they can continue to win their home fixtures and draw away from Goodison Park. The quest for a complete performance this season goes on but under the circumstances and with so many changes, this never going to be the match to find it. Great heart will be taken from the result, though, and that alone should be used as a platform on which Martinez and his players can build towards finding some consistency on the domestic front in the coming weeks.
Everton made the long trip to southern Russia to face a tricky match against FK Krasnodar in Group H of the Europa League. Mirallas, Coleman, Distin, Pienaar and McCarthy all stayed behind, while Samuel Eto'o led the starting line-up with a strong-looking bench.
Everton kicked off wearing their white change strip with dark blue/purple shorts. But Krasnador started by pressing then back, Pereyra taking an early shot over. Gibson then gave the ball away dangerously as the visitors looked rather nervous, Izmailov unable to convert at close range with Jagielka defending well. Everton were losing the ball cheaply and putting themselves under unwelcome pressure. Ahmedov's shot blocked away for the first corner.
The Russians kept coming forward with no little determination if some lack of skill and accuracy while Everton did their utmost to slow things down, Hibbert defending for the second corner. Stones then produced a brilliant tackle with Hibbert struggling to track back from an advanced position.
Ahmedov pulled out a fierce shot that was saved very well one-handed by Howard, low to his right, a very important save! Ari then got free but Jagielka did enough to put him off after Everton's first venture into the home area saw McGeady run the ball out.
McGeady took a good shot after running along the 18-yd line, Dakin giving away a second corner that Stones then challenged him for, causing the Russian keeper to lay prostrate, holding his head, with the Krasnodar players protesting excess aggression. Barry then tried to curl a floater around Dakin as Everton started to show themselves a little more going forward, having withstood the early onslaught in a very professional manner.
Atsu won a free-kick by the right touchline that Gibson curled in deep behind everyone, Stones heading the follow-up cross from McGeady just over the angle. Everton were looking to control possession but Osman was far too easily dispossessed, giving the home side a chance to advance. A deflected shot won another corner that was defended away.
Hibbert sent a great long ball forward to Atsu but his return ball after turning was horrible, putting the Blues under pressure again, Stones again imperious in Everton's defence. More corners for the home side were defended solidly. Atsu again got lose on the right but his ball back for Eto'o was poor and Atsu failed to get himself back onside. Hibbert guarded the next attack away for another corner, leading to a glancing header that Howard handled confidently.
Hibbert again tackled Laborde brilliantly but got called for it, and Hibbert was again alert to produce an excellent block on the byeline, but Ari broke through on a loose ball over the top with poor tracking from Jagielka and smacked it easily past Howard to give the home side the lead just before half-time.
Martinez acted at the break, bringing on Romelu Lukaku in place of Christian Atsu who had not done all that well. But Krasnodar won a trio of early corners, Hibbert and Barry needing to be alert in defence. Everton were still struggling to get any real flow or rhythm to their play, resorting to punts from the back at times, and not holding possession gong forward. The one time they did, Osman had strayed offside.
There followed a 5-minute period where Everton's forward play was absolutely shocking, every forward ball either punted or clogged wildly forward with little or no control, and producing turnover after turnover.
Better work down the right finally won only Everton's third corner, Baines delivering well but it was won by the head of Ari, and Everton were again under pressure. Krasnodar really should have scored a second when they scythed through the Everton defence and it looked like Russian shooting practice, the Blues clinging on mostly by good fortune as more corners rained in.
Down the left this time, Baines did brilliantly to cross for Lukaku... who was out near the corner flag as an excellent ball whizzed across the area just begging for a tap-in. In the follow-up Gibson lashed one from distance over the bar as Wanderson, another Brazilian, came on for Izmaylov. An absolutely brilliant mazy run from the sub beat five Everton defenders, clipping it off the top of the bar, so close to a second goal...
After some exceedingly laborious attacking, Lukaku finally got a shot from a narrow angle winning a corner that was delivered superbly by Gibson but no-one could convert it. Wanderson then fouled Osman to give Baines a chance for a set-piece in from wide right that was headed away, Osman's clever feet winning a throw on the left side.
Everton seemed to finally develop some urgency around the 75-minute mark, Lukaku doing well to get forward down the inside left channel and win Everton's 5th corner, which was again delivered well but headed away. Osman did well to cross again into the danger area but again a long way from any goal-poaching Everton strikers, who were elsewhere.
McGeady was working hard to create things down the right, winning the 6th Everton corner which was again well delivered in well by Baines but headed away, then on the follow-up Eto'o was finally well positioned to turn in an excellent ball from Baines on the right with finally not one but THREE Everton strikers poaching in the 6-yard box. It was a vital goal that finally gave the Blues something to hold on to.
A late corner taken short saw Baines then cross for Lukaku to head down but Dikan tracked the ball and wafted it away as the Blues probed for a winner. Jedrzejczyk fouled Baines, but Gibson's delivery was short and an opportunity was wasted. Lukaku was then called for exuberance, leading to a silly yellow card for not retreating 10 yards.
A poor giveaway led to Wanderson having a gifted shot before the Turkish ref finally blue for full-time. A respectable if unimpressive result after a rather poor performance left Everton still top of Group H with 4 points.
In the thick of the first congested part of the fixture list, Everton have made the long trip to southern Russia to face a tricky Europa League match against FK Krasnodar looking for a result that would enhance their standing in Group H.
The 4-1 win over Wolfsburg, the stand-out result of the season so far, means that the Blues come into the second round of games as group leaders armed with the knowledge that a draw or a win would keep them on course for the second phase.
Though he will be forced into changes from the side that started the Anfield derby on Saturday by injuries to Kevin Mirallas and James McCarthy, this game will also give some indication as to how Roberto Martinez will approach the away fixtures in the Europa League and to what extent he will leverage his squad.
The sweeping changes he made at Swansea City in the League Cup last week met with fairly disastrous results so it's unlikely he will disrupt things too much. But with Ryan Ledson, Luke Garbutt and Tyias Browning all making the trip, there is scope to provide some of the younger players with valuable experience in Continental football.
McCarthy's absence, due to quad muscle fatigue according to his manager, points to another potential starting berth for Muhamed Besic, Darron Gibson, or both in central midfield, while Aiden McGeady will likely attempt to fill the void left by Mirallas with his experience of having played in the Russian League.
Christian Atsu and Bryan Oviedo are also in the mix for the wide positions, giving the manager a number of options when it comes to the forward areas of his line-up.
Samuel Eto'o, too, spent time in Russia with Anzhi Makhachkala and with Martinez more or less confirming that Romelu Lukaku will play in both of the next two matches before the international break in an attempt to get him close to 100% fitness, it does open up the possibility of the two strikers starting together for the first time.
Much will depend on how adventurous Martinez feels but Krasnodar's inpressive record at home during the qualifying rounds suggests that the solid defensive performance from the weekend will need to be carried through if Everton are to come away from the Kuban Stadium with any kind of result.
The Russians are an attacking side boasting three Brazilians in the form of Ari, Wanderson and Joãozinho who scored 8 goals and conceded none on home turf, including a 3-0 victory over Real Sociedad that helped them qualify for the group phase. And their 1-1 draw at Lille a fortnight ago was also a statement of intent that they could be a dark horse in the group.
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