It's rare that a manager gets an opportunity to run the rule over so many players pressing claims for the first team but Everton's impressive record over the first five games in the Europa League group phase afforded Roberto Martinez such a luxury in the dead rubber against Krasnodar. at Goodison this evening
The match may have been meaningless in the context of Group H – the Toffees had aleady qualified as group winners; Krasnodar were playing to avoid finishing with the wooden spoon – but it was a valuable exercise for Martinez who used the occasion to introduce four of his young players to the senior team, hand another first-team opportunity to Tyias Browning, Conor McAleny and Luke Garbutt, and provide both Arouna Kone and Bryan Oviedo the final stepping stone to rehabilitation from long-term injury.
Everton narrowly lost the game, a rain-soaked affair that ended the Blues' unbeaten run in the competition but the boss will hopefully have gleaned plenty from what he saw, not only about youngsters like Ryan Ledson and Kieran Dowell, but some of his more experienced players as well.
Christian Atsu was hoping to be among those players demonstrating that they have enough to be in the frame for the first team on a regular basis but the 22 year-old's evening was ruined after just six minutes when he pulled up with a hamstring injury chasing a loose ball over the touchline. It removed what might have been a valuable attacking outlet on the right flank but it offered 17-year-old Dowell 80 minutes
of playing time against a decent Krasnodar side who had fielded nine of the 11 players who played in the reverse fixture in October.
In the absence his his direct running, though, emerged Kone and Garbutt, the two standout performers of the evening. The Ivorian has spent 14 months out of action – more if you consider that he was barely fit for his first few outings as an Everton player last year – but he looked sharp, hungry and anything but a player who has been out so long. With better luck, or a less attentive display from Andrei Sinitsyn, he might have scored his first goal for the Blues but the Russian 'keeper was equal to the three shots he put on target.
Garbutt, meanwhile, did everything he could to enhance his reputation as the next Leighton Baines, going so far as to eclipse his mentor's set-piece delivery with a series of dangerous crosses from dead-ball situations, the first of which almost put Evertpon ahead but Anton Alcaraz's header dropped inches the wrong side of the post. The 21 year-old's willingness to run at the opposition defence, combined witn some tidy ball skills and an eye for a dangerous pass made him head and shoulders the pick of the younger players on show.
As Martinez noted after the game, the other youngsters didn't really settle until the second half against a Krasnodar team who were willing to knock the ball about nicely in midfield before looking to pick out a probing ball behind their hosts' defence. And it was from one such ball that Ricardo Laborde caught Pienaar flat-footed, stealing into the space vacated by Alcaraz and Gareth Barry, the two centre-halves who had been drawn over to the right flank, before advancing on Joel Robles in goal.
The Spaniard had done well to close the angle and deny Wanderson earlier in half when the Brazilian's fierce shot flew through his gloves and hit him full in the face and he initially looked to have forced Laborde into an impossible position on this occasion, too. Bizarrely, though, he wandered into no-man's land, presumably to cut off a cross, and left the goal gaping behind him, a gift that the Colombian grabbed by tucking the ball home.
Everton had their moments in trying to equailse before half time, Garbutt's exicting run winning a corner from which Alcaraz headed over under pressure from a defender, McAleny dragging an effort wide from 20 yards and Pienaar finishing another good move involving Garbutt with a powerful shot that Sinitsyn pushed away from goal.
Though initially penned into their own half by Krasnodar and saved from a wider deficit by Robles' save from Laborde, Everton's experimental side – Ledson, in particular – grew in stature as the match progressed and an excellent swivel and shot from Kone was batted away by the 'keeper. Ragnar Sigurdsson then effected a well-time sliding block in front of his goal to charge down Dowell's shot after the teenager had been threaded in beautifully by the lively Oviedo.
Apart from a scintiallating run by Kone and a low cross-cum-shot from Garbutt, however, Everton failed to test Sinitsyn unduly in the closing stages while more poor positional play by Robles should have paved the way for Marat Izmailov to make it 2-0 but he fired wide and Mauricio Pereyra also scuffed a shot passed the goal when well placed.
It's always disappointing to lose but the focus was all on the performance of some of the Blues' fringe players and, whether they performed well or not, the knowledge Martinez gained will have been important. In that sense, Robles, with two highly worrying lapses in judgement, will be the most disappointed because he did not give a good account of himself at a time when many supporters feel that competition is needed for Tim Howard.
McAleny, meanwhile, will also feel like he let himself down a bit, repeatedly hanging into the ball rather than picking out a promising run from a teammate or selecting the wrong option in foward positions. Dowell, operating behind Kone, largely struggled to get into a patchy game but was unfortunate not to open his account when foiled by that last-ditch Sigurdsson tackle. Long and Jones, in particular, weren't really on the field for long enough to make much of an impression, although the former's nifty move on the touchline to draw a late foul and yellow card for Sigurdsson set up a free-kick opportunity for Garbutt that Kone headed narrowly over.
On the plus side, while he looked more impressive in his cameos at Anfield and Old Trafford, Browning put in a decent shift at right back and Ledson recorded 100% pass accuracy in the second half as he settled into his customary defensive-midfield role in front of the back four. It was Garbutt, a fortnight on from his excellent outing in Wolfsburg, who stole the show, though, magnifying the question mark over whether Everton will be able to retain a player who is blossoming into regular first-team material but, just seven months from the end of his contract, is second in line behind Baines for the first-choice left-back slot.
Everton sign off from their Group H commitments on Thursday evening with the dead rubber against Krasnodar where Roberto Martinez will make good on his pledge to use the occasion to play some of his promising young players and a couple of long-term absentees.
The Blues were confirmed as group winners and seeding for the knockout phase by virtue of their 2-0 win in Wolfsburg a fornight ago, the culmination of a laudible run of results in what was billed as one this year's Europa League groups of death. Unspectacular yet professional and vital away draws in Lille and Russia were bolstered by two handsome victories, leaving Martinez in the enviable position of going into the final match with nothing to play for but plenty to discover about some fringe players.
The manager confirmed at his press conference this afternoon that Arouna Kone will complete the longest recovery of his career to date by making his first senior start since October last year and will be joined by another long-term injury casualty in the form of Bryan Oviedo. Both players played and scored for the Under-21s at Goodison Park against Sunderland 10 days ago, an outing that both players hope will have marked the final step towards a return to full fitness.
Kone described the opportunity as akin to a second debut. Since arriving from Wigan Athletic in his manager's footsteps in July 2013, the Ivorian's Everton career has never really got off the launchpad. A disrupted pre-season meant that he began his first campaign at Goodison short of fitness and some painful misses in his early appearances betrayed some of that inevitable rustiness before his season was ended by a heavy impact to his knee in the home game against Hull City.
The 31 year-old required surgery to repair the meniscus in the knee and has spent many months in rehabilitation, both at Finch Farm and a facility in Belgium this past summer hoping to be fit to start again in 2014-15. He was set to make an appearance in the Capital One Cup tie at Swansea in September but was forced to withdraw from the team before kick-off after feeling pain in the injured knee and has spent the past three months slowly gaining more fitness to the where it seems he is finally ready to return to the first team.
Oviedo, meanwhile, played in that ill-fated game at the Liberty Stadium before making a late cameo at Old Trafford where he almost reprised his goalscoring heroics of a year ago but has been out of the senior setup since having screws removed from the bones he fractured at Stevenage last January. He too is looking to put the past 11 months behind him by coming through Thursday's European fixture unscathed.
Martinez also confirmed that, in addition to Steven Pienaar – another injury-ravaged player – Atnolin Alcaraz, and Joel Robles, there will be playing time for some of his promising U21 players. Luke Garbutt, Tyias Browning and Conor McAleny, all of whom have figured at first-team level already, will play a part and, though he didn't name them, the Catalan promised there would be other exicting youngsters – most likely including Ryan Ledson – involved.
While Evertonians will be hoping for a win to put the icing on the group-stage cake, neutral eyes will be on Lille who still have a small chance of edging Wolsfburg for the second qualification slot if they can win by a three-goal margin at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy.
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