Europa League: Key talismans against Mediterranean defences

Which Everton players will be key to breaking the defensive resistance of their main rivals for progression from Group E?

As if failing to sign a left-back and striker on deadline day was not enough, Ronald Koeman’s new-look Toffees squad now face one of the tougher Europa League groups, with a squad that many would argue is not deep enough to juggle European and domestic duties. The club’s situation is, as ever, imperfect. Yet, anything other than a brace of wins over Apollon Limassol spells big trouble for Everton where the Europa League is concerned. As such, no in-depth analysis of the Cypriots is entirely necessary, although one does exist. However, with Everton club having limited resources in the final third, goals will come at a premium against the other two teams of Europa League Group E. As such, studying the key defenders in the Atalanta and Lyon squads will be crucial to Evertonian progress in the 2017/18 Europa League.

Though Everton were drawn into the more difficult of the two groups that were possible by the time they were drawn, Blues fans can at least take solace from the fact that the squad will be better-prepared for the rigours of the knockout phase – if Everton get there.

Vlasic vs Masiello – Surprise is the key to success

By winning the away game against a team expected to mount a decent challenge for second place, Everton’s confidence will be vastly boosted, although a good number of meaningful efforts on goal will be required to achieve it. A front pairing of Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Sandro Ramirez could be the order of the day against a team that lost just once in its final 18 Serie A games of 2016/17. Though both youngsters have obvious room for improvement, they would provide a sufficiently good blend of vision and flair to give Atalanta a difficult night on September 14 if approaching the game in good form. Meanwhile, Nikola Vlasic will likely play regularly on the wing for Everton for the looming Europa League campaign. Should that be the case, Vlasic’s personal marker will likely be 31-year-old defender Andrea Masiello, who played on the left side of a back three in his last outing (a 3-1 defeat at Napoli, as reported on Sports Mole). A no-nonsense defender, Masiello made at least two interceptions per game during the 2016/17 Serie A season, but less than one block per game. As such, an element of surprise will be required to beat Masiello, and that is exactly what Vlasic provided for Hajduk Split in their Europa League tie against the Toffees.

Everton’s first group game is away to Atalanta. Though Everton will be marginal favourites, Atalanta proved to be stern opposition en-route to a fourth place finish, as evidenced by the club’s resilient draw against the ‘unstoppable’ Juventus last season.

Sigurdsson’s sensational Split strike more than a fluke

Though Evertonians are understandably frustrated by the club’s collective failure to sign a striker, the squad is arguably the richest it has ever been in terms of resources in the ‘number ten’ role of attacking midfield. For 45 million reasons, much of the responsibility to disrupt Everton’s upcoming Europa League opponents will fall to Gylfi Sigurdsson. As noted on this blog, the most significant transfers are planned months in advance, and there indeed been an air of inevitability about Sigurdsson’s departure from Swansea long before the wind0w opened. Thankfully, Goodison Park was the Icelandic midfielder’s chosen destination, and (in no uncertain terms) he has already demonstrated how he can make a positive impact on a game that is proving frustrating for Everton, and his ability from the dead ball is famous across Europe. With the top spot of Group E likely to be filled by Everton or Lyon, Sigurdsson’s dead ball skills will be a vital asset to breaking the French rearguard. The usual pairing in the centre of Lyon’s defence is Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Mouctar Diakhaby, with the latter standing at an impressive 1.89m (according to Transfermarkt) and providing perhaps the best foil to a Sigurdsson free kick. Tellingly, in the 2016/17 Ligue 1 season, both men made an average of two vital interceptions per game each. With chances coming at a premium for an Everton side that has limited striking resources, frustration could easily set in before long, making Sigurdsson’s dead ball skills a potential godsend in what will likely be the key ‘battleground’ to win the group outright.

This is exactly what Everton less-than-towering attack must deal with. Twice.

Starting and finishing away – “Everton, that”

For the very first time in the club’s history, Everton will begin and end a Europa League group stage campaign on the road, and this could also impact greatly on Everton’s league performances. As noted on the BBC Sport website, high-octane trips to Old Trafford and Anfield follow (respectively) Everton’s Europa League games at Atalanta and Apollon Limassol. Everton’s toughest away game of the group stage (at Lyon) precedes a home match against a Watford side that has conducted some shrewd business in the summer. Forebodingly, since the UEFA Cup became the Europa League in 2009, Everton have taken just five points from a possible 18 in Premier League games played after a Europa League trip, with the sole win coming at a poor Burnley side just days after a 0-0 draw at Lille in October 2014. Though the next four months will be extremely challenging for Everton on both fronts, the Toffees can only become the best by beating the best. Over the past two decades, the club has been through hell at times, and with a fanbase utterly sick of ‘false dawns’, the 2017/18 season will be a telling one for the Evertonian generations to come.

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