It was billed as the "group of death" but while Evertonians were blanching a little at being drawn against three teams who wouldn't have looked out of place in the Champions League – both Wolfsburg and Lille have qualified for Uefa's elite tournament within the last five years, after all – our opponents were quietly ruing the fact they had been lumped in with Everton.
With five of the six Group H matches in the books, the Blues' reputation as the team from pot 3 that no-one wanted to draw has been fully realised – Roberto Martinez's team have not only secured qualification to the knockout phase of the Europa League with a game to spare, they have also ensured they will do so as winners of the group thanks to a superb victory in the Volkswagen Arena.
On paper, the trip to Wolfsburg, on a run of eight wins from 10 that has taken them up to second in the Bundesliga since their 4-1 defeat at Goodison Park two months ago, was a daunting one. Though the stakes weren't quite as high as they might have been a few weeks ago – both teams came into evening knowing that a draw would effectively have put both Die Wolfe and the Toffees through – Martinez was taking nothing for granted and he knew that this was a very difficult assignment. He will, no doubt, be beaming then after seeing his team execute an impressive gameplan and emerge handsome winners against a very effective team.
The chief agitator and the player perhaps basking most in the post-match limelight was Romelu Lukaku, a man courted at length by Wolfsburg over the summer but who eventually signed for Everton in a club-record £28M deal. Living up to that hefty price tag in the face of a disrupted pre-season and an annoying toe injury has been difficult at times for the 21-year-old this season but he stood tall this evening to score the first goal, prompt the save that should have brought the second from Aiden McGeady, and then play Kevin Mirallas in for that killer second with 16 minutes left.
That outcome looked unlikely in the early going. Wolfsburg, shorn of dynamic left back Ricardo Rodriguez but bolstered by the presence of Ivan Perisic, an absentee from the reverse fixture because of a shoulder injury, started with an intensity that the Blues struggled to match. The Croatian World Cup star had smashed a half-volley across the face of Tim Howard's goal and skied a free header well over by the time Samuel Eto'o had ended Everton's their first meaningful attack by bouncing a cross-cum-shot wide in the 10th minute.
And yet it was Everton who should have taken the lead in the 12th minute after quick thinking by McGeady to rob Robin Knoche with a well-timed slide tackle forced a corner from the right-hand side. Luke Garbutt, getting the nod to deputise for Leighton Baines that many felt he should have got from Martinez against West Ham last Saturday, swung a kick to the back post where Sylvain Distin stole in behind his marker but his downward header bounced onto the crossbar.
At the other end, meanwhile, Tim Howard made the first of a number of saves he would be called on to make by turning Aaron Hunt's fierce shot behind with a one-handed save before Kevin de Bruyne, a constant threat from midfield, saw an effort of his own deflect behind off Phil Jagielka. The resulting corner came back to the Belgian wide on the right and he swept a low cross into the six-yard box that Niclas Bendtner helped on for Perisic to turn in from close range. The referee's assistant flagged for offside though – erroneously as it turned out – and the goal was chalked off.
Continuing the theme established in Krasnodar and Lille, Everton were inviting plenty of problems by their carelessness in possession in midfield, leaving the back five to work overtime to keep the hosts at bay. That size of that task appeared to grow with half-an-hour gone when James McCarthy was forced to withdraw with a hamstring injury, with Leon Osman coming on in his place. The Blues held firm for the remainder of the half, though, with a terrific block by Jagielka keeping things goalless when De Bruyne looked destined to finish a quick Wolfsburg counter-attack by scoring while Mirallas tested Diego Benaglio with a decent curling shot from 20-odd yards.
Everton broke the deadlock, though, two minutes before half-time. Wolfsburg were caught with all 10 outfield players in the Blues' half as the ball was played out of defence and when Mirallas knocked it on for Lukaku, the striker had a clear run on goal from the centre circle. Poor control initially seemed to have let him down but he recovered well and bore down on goal in typical fashion before planting it past the 'keeper.
With the advantage in hand, Everton were markedly improved after the half-time interval but an error by McGeady, who worked tirelessly off the ball but was pretty dreadful with it, let De Bruyne in but Howard saved again to deny him. From the corner, Bendtner headed home Perisic's flick-on but again the assistant's flag was raised, this time correctly.
It should have been "game over" five minutes later when tidy work by Osman released Lukaku down the left channel, his low shot was saved by Benaglio and the rebound sat up perfectly for McGeady. The Irishman somehow side-footed wide of the upright with the goal yawning in front of him, though.
Thankfully, after Howard had pushed behind shots by Perisic and Marcel Schafer, Mirallas was far more clinical when he got the chance to make it 2-0 in the 74th minute. More controlled work on the ball by Lukaku in evading two Wolfsburg players after he collected another ball out from the back allowed him to send a nicely-weighted pass through the home defence which his compatriot collected, turned the last defender, and found the far corner with unerring accuracy.
Staring defeat in the face, the German side continued to press forward in search of a way back into the game and substitute Ivica Olic glanced a header narrowly wide before Howard pushed Arnold's low drive onto the outside of the post, but you could sense Everton had the bit between their teeth now and they looked the more likely to add to the scoreline. A neat interchange involving two of Martinez's own subs, Christian Atsu and Ross Barkley, looked to have provided a third Everton goal but the latter was marginally offside and his goal became the third of the night to be disallowed.
Injuries have threatened to scuttle Everton's season but, despite losing their defensive midfield axis in McCarthy and Gareth Barry and their chief chance-creator in Baines, the Blues are now eight games unbeaten in all competitions.
The likes of Muhamed Besic, an impressive replacement for Barry despite the occasional stray pass in dangerous areas, and Garbutt who displayed immense composure for such an inexperienced player, repaid their manager's faith in them and showed that there is real depth now to Martinez's squad (albeit depth that is now in danger of being exhausted if the current spate of injuries continues).
With Dieter Hecking's team registering a 60% share of possession and racking up an astonishing 38 shots, 3-0 would have been a startling scoreline and, yet, even 2-0 underscored the clinical nature with which the Blues picked them off to complete a deserved double over the Bundesliga outfit.
That just seven of Wolfsburg's shots were on target was telling and, much like in the first meeting between the two sides, when they did find their accuracy, they found Howard in obdurate mood. On both occasions, Everton were content to absorb the pressure, contain the vigour of Wolfsburg's attack and dare them to beat the American from distance before dealing with them efficiently at the other end.
Everton won their Europa League group after a brilliant victory in what was, on paper, their most difficult assignment yet against Wolfsburg. Roberto Martinez made changes to the team that started against West Ham, with Samuel Eto'o replacing Steven Naismith, Muhamed Besic coming in for Leon Osman, Luke Garbutt starting at left back and Tony Hibbert switching to right back. Aiden McGeady plays instead of Ross Barkley.
Wolsburg kicked off and showed their intent with a lively attack down the Everton right, and a viscous cross played right through the danger area. Their next attack, Perisic got beyond Hibbert but badly mistimed his header. The Blues, playing in their white second strip, were having trouble retaining possession once they got the ball and ventured forward into the home side's half of the pitch.
After a poor 10 minutes, Everton strung together their first attack, McGeady playing in Lukaku but a dreadful first touch let him down. The ball did come to Eto'o on the left but Lukaku had already strayed offside when Eto'o picked out a perfect pass fro him that bounced through harmlessly. Peresic had a good ball to chase but Howard covered him. Great work from McGeady won Everton's first corner that Garbutt delivered in brilliantly to the far post where Distin misjudged the curl and heads it onto the bar off the ground.
The play was immediately up the other end where De Bruyne won a corner from which a tremendous shot was palmed away by Howard, a great reaction save. McCarthy went down with a knee problem but was back on quickly as Wolfsburg attacked with pace and verve.
Everton were very lucky to have a clearly legal goal against them disallowed when Peresic, who was onside, clipped the ball past Howard after a corner won off a slight deflection from another De Bruyne shot. Everton were looking very ragged at the back although Garbutt was looking pretty mature and sensible in his play. A massive warning to the away team, as if one was needed...
McGeady clipped Bendtner's toe, giving away a free kick some way out that Naldo wellied hard over the bar. Everton had been unable to settle into much a rhythm, with possession play breaking down under stern pressing and tight marking from Wolfsburg. Some good Everton play down the left, starting from Distin, again came to nothing as the ball was surrendered cheaply, allowing Wolfsburg to attack again. McCarthy went down again, only to hobble off clutching his hamstring, Osman replacing him.
Mirallas cut inside and fired off an excellent shot that forced a save from Benaglio. But the corner would not fall to a white shirt and the pressure on Everton's defense resumed, Peresic again causing concern with another cross whipped in. Vieirinha was next to run in and fire at Howard before Bendtner from the other side tried to curl one around Howard.
Jagielka had to make a tremendous block to stop an excellent goalbound shot from De Bruyne and from the corner, a quick clearance by Osman found Mirallas who flicked it on for Lukaku to rampage forward. After another woeful first touch, the Big Man galloped away and fired superbly past Benaglio to give Everton a somewhat undeserved but very welcome half-time lead. Gustavo was booked for tripping Mirallas after Eto'o got sandwiched.
After the break, Besic fouled with his studs showing and was lucky not to be carded, De Bruyne again firing hard but high from the layback. De Bruyne then had another shot blocked by Jagielka. Going forward, Eto'o seemed off his game, sadly, with too many passes going to opposition players, while Hunt was next to warm Howard's gloves. Then a beaautiful intelligent flick by Eto'o did come off and it looked like him and Lukaku could break but the Big Man again struggled to make progress.
Bendter did score from a corner flicked on but the flick on found him offside as he powered the ball behind Howard from close range. Peresic was carded for insisting it was also wrongly disallowed. Finally a better spell from Everton saw them move forward, great work from Besic, and Eto'o winning a corner but the ref allowing a scrum to go unpunished, The ball came to Lukaku who did well to cut along the byeline and shoot, the ball falling nicely for McGeady with an open goal and the thoroughly disappointing Irishman somehow contrive to miss the goal altogether with his chip. /p>
Mirallas got forward on a good ball from McGeady but was called offside as he shot straight at Benaglio, while Howard again had to be alert to push another shot from Peresic away for a corner, Naldo firing over from the follow-up. Everton were having to soak up a lot of pressure at times, but it was a good test for the patched-up defence, with Garbutt putting in a god solid competent display at left back.
Ross Barkley came on fro Samuel Eto'o to play out the last 20 mins. Besic finally saw yellow for a foul on De Bruyne. A tremendous shot from Schaeffer was watched all the way by Howard who wanted to keep a clean sheet, putting Everton back on the attack, Lukaku holding the ball well and turning superbly around the half-way line before picking out a brilliant pass to Mirallas, who was faultless in his execution, carrying the ball forward and firing low into the corner of the net, another superb European goal and a very welcome sight for Kevin Mirallas.
Atsu replaced Mirallas for the final 10 mins, while the largely one-way traffic on Everton's goal continued for most of the time, but with nothing to show for it as Everton's defence repelled all comers. At times, it looked nervy and panicky with last-ditch blocks, diving defensive headers, wild hacks, fractional deflections onto the post, as Howard's goal lived something of a charmed life at time.
Everton did get forward, Barkley trying to beat everyone and then getting in a beautiful strike but it was ruled offside. The last minutes saw some of the best Everton action in the Wolfsburg area, McGeady almost getting in a shot.
An absolutely superb result from a very professional performance by a hanged side with a slew of injuries, Roberto Martinez pulling off something akin to a small miracle in Wolfsburg.
Everton are back in Europa League action this week as they travel to Wolfsburg for what is, on paper, their most difficult assignment yet in this season's competition. Though the Blues won September's meeting at Goodison Park handsomely, the 4-1 scoreline masked the strength of the Bundesliga side and Roberto Martinez will know that his men are unlikely to find them so accommodating in their own back yard.
Even so, Everton have travelled well so far in Europe this season, carrying out their assignments in Krasnodar and Lille in unspectacular but efficient fashion to earn the draws that, coupled with two impressive home wins, leaves them with one foot in the next round going into the fifth round of Group H matches.
The job is by no means done, of course, and Martinez would, no doubt, love to top the group; that makes avoiding defeat in the Volkswagen Arena of paramount importance – a win for the Germans would put them top of the pile going into the final group matches.
The Toffees' boss comes into the fixture with a number of injury concerns that will complicate his thinking as he plots his team. Steven Naismith is ruled out after picking up a hamstring strain at the end of Saturday's win with West Ham United, joining John Stones and Antolin Alcaraz on the list of unvailable players that will also likely include Bryan Oviedo, Gareth Barry, Stephen Pienaar, Leighton Baines and Darron Gibson.
Oviedo continues to be brought back slowly from his double leg-break and the removal of the screws from his bones last month, while it is surely too soon after Barry's ankle ligament injury for him to return. Baines, Pienaar and Gibson are nursing minor complaints and Martinez will no doubt weigh their inclusion against the probability of qualifcation from the group irrespective of the result on Thursday evening and the importance of Sunday's clash with Tottenham at White Hart Lane.
Tony Hibbert was an able if unspectacular deputy for Baines against the Hammers at the weekend while Osman appeared to revel in a deeper-lying role in Barry's stead. Both could start again, although there is also scope for Luke Garbutt to make his second start of the season if the manager is feeling bolder. His decision to put Matthew Pennington and Brendan Galloway on first-team standby this week may also hint at some fresher faces appearing on the squad list for Germany.
Again, much depends on the level of the Catalan's desire to ensure he comes away from Wolfsburg with a result. Much will be asked of Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka between now and the end of the year and while it's probable that the likes of Tyias Browning will see some action in the coming weeks, it remains to be seen whether Martinez would risk them against such a talented side as that of Dieter Hecking.
Since losing on Merseyside two months ago, Wolfsburg have been on a terrific run that has seen them win six of eight and propelled them to second in the Bundesliga behind leaders Bayern Munich. Their defeat at Schalke (a team that lost 5-0 at home to Chelsea in the Champions League this week, it should be noted) ended a six-game winning streak, so there will be some uncertainty for the Blues to exploit.
Key for Everton will be shackling Kevin de Bruyne, Ricardo Rodriguez and Ivan Perisic who starred for Croatia at the World Cup in Brazil but missed the match at Goodison with a shoulder injury. De Bruyne, in particular, was the chief orchestrator of the German team's best moments in that match, although he and his teammates were largely restricted to long-range efforts from the night and Rodriguez only managed to beat Tim Howard with a world-class free kick in injury time.
A big test for Everton without doubt but if they can carve out a win, passage to the knockout phase of the Europa League is assured with a game to spare.
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