Saturday 25 January 2020

Crowd trouble in away section fails to stop Everton gaining Europa League edge

Everton's Michael Keane celebrates scoring against Split
Everton's Michael Keane celebrates scoring against Split

Phil Medlicott

In the moments before half-time in front of Goodison Park’s ancient Bullens Road stand, the stewards did not lay as they usually do waiting for the whistle to blow: quite seductively, albeit fully-dressed in uniform jacket, illuminous in colour. As Everton scored for a second time to take control of this tie, indeed, not a single one of the fifty or so that had assembled in that area of the ground could afford to glance behind at the celebrations.

This was a tense evening on Merseyside; not due to the balance of the game but because of the mood on the terraces, particularly where the Hajduk Split supporters were gathered. Twice fights had started in the first half, the most serious of which involved an unhealthy number of men attempting to hurdle the advertising hoardings and storm the Park End. Seats were broken and missiles were thrown. Swiftly, the Slovakian referee took the decision to halt play. There now must be concerns about the safety of travelling Evertonians when they visit Croatia for this qualifying round second leg.

The atmosphere elsewhere did not match the serenity of Everton’s performance. It is uncertain at the point exactly what Everton’s best is but with Premier League fixtures against both Manchester clubs, Chelsea and Tottenham to be played in the next three to four weeks, the preparation for those games could not really be any better in terms of results and fitness.

Everton have now played four times this season, winning each one without conceding a goal. It represents their best start to a campaign in 39 years. Every week, Wayne Rooney looks leaner and sharper, while his relationship with Davy Klaassen appears to be developing nicely.

Beyond the excitement of Everton’s record summer in terms of spending has been the reality that Ronald Koeman has needed a bigger squad to deal with the demands of European football.

Koeman must have decided that his new players need to adapt quickly rather than gradually. Everton have successfully recruited in the transfer market seven times since the start of June. Had it not been for the ineligibility of Gylfi Sigurdsson and an injury to Sandro Ramirez, perhaps all seven rather than five would have started here.

When you consider Morgan Schneiderlin and Ademola Lookman were brought in mid-way through last season; when you consider that Ashley Williams Idrissa Gueye have only been at Everton for just over a year – when you consider those four all began this game as well, it dawns just how much change Koeman has brought since his appointment.

Sigurdsson was presented before the crowd ahead of kick-off. It will be interesting to see where he fits into this team with so many players available to Koeman that already perform his role. Rooney, Klaassen both thrive in between the opposition lines of defence and midfield, while Tom Davies and Ross Barkley are still available to him.

In each of Everton’s three competitive games so far, it has been the relationship between Klaassen and Rooney that has stood out the most, with one rarely far from the other: quick minds working together. Those quick minds combined here to release Gueye, who did not finish like an industrious midfielder and rather more like a number 9. By then, Michael Keane had already opened the scoring and this moment seemed to incite those causing the problems in the away end.

With a healthy margin of victory, Koeman decided to shut the game down and Hajduk could not find a way respond. For Everton, it’s another game ticked off, though worryingly next week on the banks of the Adriatic the challenge could be about more than just dealing with emotions on the pitch.

Everton (4-3-3): Pickford; Martina, Keane, Williams, Baines; Gana, Schneiderlin (Davies h-t), Klaassen (Calvert-Lewin 60); Lookman, Rooney, Mirallas (Besic 79). Subs: Stekelenburg, Jagielka, Lennon, Holgate.

Hajduk Split (4-3-2-1): Stipica; Juranovic, Nizic, Carbonieri, Memolla; Gentsoglu (Basic 76), Radosevic, Barry; Kozulj (Erceg 65), Vlasic, Ohandza (Said 65). Subs: Letica, Bosancic, Sehic, Tudo.

Referee: Ivan Kruzliac (Slovakia)

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