Europa League Preview
Wayne Rooney will start a competitive match for Everton for the first time in 13 years
The start of the Premier League campaign is still two-and-a-half weeks away but Everton's 2017-18 season kicks off in earnest this evening as they take their first steps on the road to Lyon.
The Toffees' seventh-place finish in 2016-17 gained them entry into the Europa League but only at the Third Qualifying Round stage which entails an early start against minnows MFK Ružomberok at Goodison Park.
The return to European competition, coupled with the club's ambitious summer spending, has engendered unprecedented interest from supporters, however. Unlike the first group stage game against Wolfsburg three years ago when 28,000-plus attended in the midst of an iffy start to Roberto Martinez's second season in charge, Goodison is sold out for the home leg, guaranteeing a bumper crowd under the lights for the visit of the Slovakian side.
The chance to see some of those new close-season acquisitions for the first time has no doubt helped ticket sales, none more so perhaps than one Wayne Rooney who will line up in an Everton jersey for a competitive match for the first time in 13 years.
Ronald Koeman didn't specify which of his six eligible new recruits will be in the starting XI but confirmed in yesterday's press conference that the 31-year-old will play, although he stopped short of confirming where.
Romelu Lukaku's departure has created a vacancy among last season's line-up of automatic starters and Rooney, while his powers as an out-and-out striker have diminished with age, could be charged with filling that void for this fixture at least, particularly if Sandro Ramirez isn't deemed ready.
The Spaniard could well start as well, though, along with Kevin Mirallas in a forward three, with three more new signings down the spine of the team in the form of Davy Klaassen, Michael Keane and Jordan Pickford. Cuco Martina, the free agent acquisition who left Southampton this summer, is almost certain to start in place of the injured Seamus Coleman if Koeman opts for a back three.
At centre half, with Ramiro Funes Mori sidelined for the rest of the year, it will be a case of Ashley Williams or Phil Jagielka getting the nod to partner Keane if the new man from Burnley is selected unless the manager goes with a back three and risks fielding all three.
In terms of the opposition, Ružomberok are very much a little-known quantity to most Everton fans. The Ruža are back in European competition for the first time in 11 seasons thanks to their third-place finish in the Slovakian league last season.
They edged past Vojvodina of Serbia 3-2 on aggregate in the First Qualifying round and overcame the odds to overturn a 1-0 first-leg deficit against SK Brann in the last round to win the away game 2-0, solidifying their credentials as a side capable of scoring late goals and winning away from home.
The consensus must be, however, that Everton will have too much for their less-fancied opponents and, barring unforeseen disaster, it will be the Blues who progress to the playoff round next month.
Kick-off: 8.05pm, Thursday 27 July, 2017
Predicted Line-up: Pickford, Martina, Jagielka, Keane, Baines, Schneiderlin, Gueye, Klaassen, Mirallas, Rooney, Ramirez