Europa League football returned to Goodison Park under the lights and Everton marked its return with a superb result against Bundesliga side Wolfsburg, becoming the only English side to overcome German opposition in European competition this week.
The performance may not have quite hit the heights that the 4-1 scoreline suggests but take nothing away from the Blues who kept Wolfsburg at bay with a combination of impressive defending and goalkeeping and then clinically despatched them with superior finishing in the final third.
Pleasingly, Roberto Martinez had named an unchanged line-up, opting for continuity over squad rotation and he was rewarded by his players who scored two goals in each half to put the game beyond the visitors' reach before Ricardo Rodriguez fired home an impressive consolation from a direct free kick.
It was a margin of victory that had looked unlikely in the early going. Wolfsburg had clearly been instructed to come out and press Everton with a high line which left the Blues hemmed into the own half for the first few minutes as they sized the opposition up.
When they had the ball, the Germans looked to move it quickly through Kevin de Bruyne and Aaron Hunt in the middle, with Ivica Olic and Rodriguez providing a threat from wide on the left. They would find Everton and John Stones (one rare error early on aside) in particular in obdurate mood, though, and once the home side had settled, they scored thanks to a really well-worked expression of passing football to scythe through Wolfsburg's defence.
Leighton Baines, James McCarthy and Steven Naismith's rapid interchange of passes ended with Baines overlapping on the left and his low cross was turned goalward by the Scot where goalkeeper Diego Benaglio appeared to get a toe on it, only for the ball rebounde off Rodriguez and into the net. It was a goal that deserved an Everton name next to it on the scoresheet but the lead was the important thing and the Blues had it.
That was followed by a fairly comfortable pattern whereby Wolfsburg saw plenty of possession but were largely denied the opportunity to do anything harmful with it. They were mostly restricted to long-range efforts that were either blocked or flew wide and it was Everton who nearly scored again three minutes from the break when Romelu Lukaku assumed free-kick duties and forced Benaglio to push his 25-yard effort away to safety.
The Blues did double their lead, though, on the stroke of half-time. Lukaku collected a return pass from Naismith and held the ball up until Mirallas had joined the attack down the left flank before cutting in past his marker and firing hard at the 'keeper. Benaglio parried his shot but Baines had once again overlapped on the outside and, reacting quicker than any of the white shirts around him, he prodded the rebound across goal where Seamus Coleman
stooped to head home Everton's second.
The game was effectively put to bed less than two minutes after the interval, albeit in fortuitous circumstances. Aiden McGeady was alive to an awful giveaway by a defender, seizing on the loose pass and prompting the covering man to take his legs just outside the area. The referee, though, pointed the penalty spot and that was all the invitation Baines needed to plant a flawless penalty into the right side of the goal to make it 3-0.
With that cushion, the Blues lapsed into a sloppy period of play that allowed Wolfsburg to enjoy what was arguably their best spell of the match, with unease starting to ripple through the home crowd. That they weren't able to claw their way back into the contest was credit to Tim Howard who made a string saves, including one superb one-handed stop to deny Rodriguez from his first direct free kick opportunity and a finger-tip save that guided a De Bruyne effort safely past the far post.
There was also a blue shirt in the way of almost every Wolfsburg shot so that anything that wasn't blocked was deflected wide and the Blues dealt with the corners thrown their way with composure.
With an hour gone and every indication that the game was as good as won, Martinez withdrew Lukaku who had not had his best game but had still made some important contributions and introduced Samuel Eto'o up front. The Cameroon international was unfortunate not to end up on the end of a Baines centre that was cut out by a defender but he was on hand to flick a forward pass on in the closing minutes for Mirallas to score Everton's fourth. He had a clear run on the 'keeper and slid it past him with aplomb to cap an enormously satisfying victory.
Rodriquez, of course, would score that late consolation with a perfectly-placed free kick after Darron Gibson's foul that caught the inside of the post with Howard able to only watch but it only took the barest gloss off a fine victory for the Blues to kick off their Europa League campaign.
All in all, you can't ask for much more than a 4-1 thumping of a team that finished fifth in the Bundesliga last season and it lays down a marker for the rest of Group H that highlights us as the team to beat. If there were a few nits, they chiefly concerned a lack of ball retention in the middle of the park, with too many balls going astray but none of them were punished and it all serves as a learning experience for Martinez's team.
Two wins on the bounce now in all competitions, Everton's season feels like it has kicked into gear. Now we have to maintain this level of intensity as the matches start to pile up but tonight offered some very positive signs.
Roberto Martinez named a strong unchanged team for the first venture into the Europa League. Samuel Eto'o, Tony Hibbert and Steven Pienaar are fit but Sylvain Distin is ruled out again with a dead leg as the Blues look to get their European campaign off to a flyer against arguably their toughest opponents in Group H.
Wolfsburg kicked off but Everton quickly adopted their calm passing game and took a few minutes before moving forward down the right until Stones gave the ball away and the visitors were kick to counter, firing over Howard's goal from an offside position. The Blues then tried down the left but with similar result, Mirallas giving away the first free-kick.
Blues passing started to show signs of weakness, with a series of wayward passes ceding possession, too much of the play taking place in the Everton half as Wolfsburg won the first corner, bundled away at the near post. De Bryne's shot was blocked as Everton struggled to impose themselves, a tough competitive game developing.
More lively Everton play finally got the Blues forward and Lukaku won the first corner, swung in. And in the next attack, the ball was bundled home off Naismith after Baines had made a great run into the area. The ball was blocked by Rodrigez and bounced in off the keeper.
There was then a pause as Benaglio went off for attention to his lip. When he came back, Wolfsburg put up determined move and Howard had to be alert to block the shot away. At the other end, a great move and a cutback to McGeady saw his fierce shot hit a defender's heel.
Coleman got forward well and crossed deep and inviting, but over Lukaku's head. Naismith got a run into the area but was sandwiched: no foul, said the ref. Wolfsburg attacked with pace, Olic a constant threat to the Everton right, getting to the byeline and cutting back from De Bryune, Howard saving the shot.
Lukaku took a tremendous free-kick that beat the wall and curved away from Benaglio but not enough to evade his diving block. Then more Everton attacking and another Everton goal, just before the break Lukaku plain in Mirallas, whose shot came off the keeper and Baines was there to prod a cross off the turf to the far post where Coleman crouched to head in with ease.
From the restart, Konche brought down McGeady just outside the box but Luca Bantii awards Everton a penalty that Leighton Baines executed with supreme confidence, hammered hard and low, sending Benaglio the wrong way. 3-0.
Jagielka took a hard shot on the head before Howard made a solid pair of saves to prevent Wolfsburg who were determined to claw back the goal differential, Naismith gave away a dangerous free-kick that Rodriguez fired in superbly, forcing a brilliant one-handed parry away by Howard. Substitute Hunt almost bundled one home but Stones did enough to put him off and Howard saved again.
A promising move down the left was spoilt by a poor cross from Mirallas as the game ebbed and flowed, Everton dealing with some very tricky football from the German side, as Bendtner came on and Wolfsburg resorted to potshots from outside the area that were blocked away by the Blues.
Coleman played a nice ball to McGeady who had a great chance to show his winger skills... but not his crossing skills as he blasted it far too hard and wayward. At the other end, Howard again hard to stand firm against another fierce shot but could only watch as an excellent free-kick curled just outside his left-hand post. Eto'o then replaced Lukaku.
Another lively move saw a header from Olic saved by Howard as Wolfsburg continued to press the home side back, but with no end product. Meanwhile, a sweeping move created brilliantly by Eto'o ended with McGeady again fluffing his lines by missing the target. At the other end, after a horrible Barry giveaway on the half-way line, Howard made a tremendous fingertip save to touch the ball inches past the post.
Gibson replaced Naismith for the final 10 mins, and moved nicely to shoot, Benaglio saving low to his right. McCarthy then shot over the bar. Coleman clashed heads with Olic and came off worst as the time ticked away. Mirallas was allowed to run through and finish expertly after looking marginally offside on a brilliant ball from Eto'o, making it four before Osman replaced Coleman to play out the match.
But there was more helter-skelter action with Wolfsburg still forcing the Blues back, McCarthy making a very strong interception. Then another dangerous free-kick given away outside the area, whipped in well by Rodriguez and finally in off the post as the final act.
Job done for the Blues with an impressive scoreline to top Group H after one round of Europa League games, with the defence almost holding firm against a barrage of shots from the Germans.
Everton kick off a busy schedule that will see them play four times in 10 days as the first real test of the depth of Roberto Martinez's squad begins in earnest. With the trip to Swansea looming next Tuesday, the Blues will open campaigns on two more fronts in the coming week and then have the small matter of the Merseyside derby to follow to close out the month.
First, though, Everton's involvement in the Europa League begins with the visit of Wolfsburg to Goodison under the lights this evening. A glance across the Park on Tuesday evening at Liverpool's opponents, Ludogrets, would have still rankled Evertonians that the Toffees were arguably handed a Champions League-quality group for for their return to European competition after five seasons, but it sets up for an attractive contest against the Bundesliga team.
Boasting the likes of Kevin de Bryne, veteran winger Ivica Olic, ex-Arsenal striker Nicolas Bendtner and rumoured Martinez target, Ivan Perisic (although, thankfully, he won't be involved as he suffered a shoulder injury last month), Wolfsburg will pose a stern challenge to Everton.
They have yet to win this season, though, beginning their League season with two draws and a defeat, albeit to Bayern Munich, so they have yet to hit any stride.
The Blues, of course, got their first victory on the board at the Hawthorns last Saturday as Romelu Lukaku got off the mark and Kevin Mirallas continued his impressive start to the season. Wolfsburg manager Dieter Hecking has admitted that he tried to sign Lukaku over the summer and the Belgian will almost certainly start up front for Martinez, most likely contining his partnership with Steven Naismith.
Samuel Eto'o, an absentee from the West Brom game with a slight groin strain, has been passed fit for this one but is unlikely to be risked from the start as he feels his way back to full match sharpness.
If there are to be changes to the attacking side of the team, it's possible that Steven Pienaar could start in place of Aiden McGeady, with Mirallas switching flanks, with Christian Atsu waiting in the wings to get more playing time and experience in the Blues' first team as a possible second-half option. The same could apply to Muhamed Besic, whose error against Chelsea on his Premier League debut was followed up by a (harsh, admittedly) booking on Saturday in another late cameo. James McCarthy and Gareth Barry would be the expected partnership this evening.
At the back, Martinez's dilemma over which central-defensive partnership to deploy is somewhat removed by Sylvain Distin's continuing unavailabilty with a dead leg and it's likley that John Stones will continue alongside Phil Jagielka.
It's in goal, though, where many eyes will be to see if the manager opts for Joel Robles over Tim Howard. The Spaniard was the "cup 'keeper" last season, playing in the American's stead in both the League and FA Cup, but he has been unconvincing in the estimation of many and there is a feeling that Martinez needs to put his best foot forward for the Europa League and stick with his best goalkeeper.
Though the attendance looks like it will be down from the packed houses that greeted Arsenal and Chelsea last month – an inevitable consequence of the glut of matches this month, perhaps – it nevertheless promises to be an exciting evening as the Grand Old Lady hosts European football once again.
With Lille and the arguably lesser-known quantity that is Krasnodar also in Group H, there will certainly be no easy games and the Blues will know that getting off the a flyer with victory over Wolfsburg would really enhance their chances of getting out of the group. It would certainly inject real confidence into the side that they can top the group and confirm fears among their rival sides that they were landed with the club from pot 3 that nobody wanted.
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