15:00 KO (BST); Saturday 12th August; Goodison Park (Liverpool, England)
Everton arrive at the beginning of a Premier League season with more anticipation from their fans than in any other season in recent memory.
After launching headfirst into the transfer market and investing around £100m in fleshing out their first team, they now have an exciting squad that has been improved upon compared to the side which topped the league form table for a long period at the beginning of 2017.
In contrast to this, Mark Hughes will be desperate to show that last season’s poor showing was an anomaly after seeing his side slowly progressing year-on-year for the previous three seasons.
They will face a tough start to their season this time around, with five of their first eight games against teams that finished in European berths at the top of the table in May. This makes it all the more imperative that Stoke are quick out of the blocks to ease the pressure which could quickly build on both players and manager alike.
Last Time Out
EVERTON 2 – 2 Sevilla (Friendly)
Sandro Ramirez scored his first goal for the Blues against familiar Spanish opposition after his goals for Málaga both home and away against Sevilla last season. It took the young Spaniard only 34 seconds to find the back of the net and his all-round display will only increase expectations on him for the coming season.
With this game coming only three days after Everton’s Europa win against MFK Ruzomberok, they needed to make a quick start and it was no huge surprise that Koeman rang eight changes to the side after an hour of the game had passed.
Particularly impressive for the Toffees were the performances of both Jordan Pickford and Wayne Rooney, the latter of which showed his experience and vision to bring his teammates into the game from the right channel which he operated in.
With many other players also putting in strong displays, Koeman will be left with a hard, but happy problem in picking his next starting line-up.
RB Leipzig 1 – 2 STOKE CITY (Friendly)
Stoke sealed their eighth and final pre-season friendly with a largely unexpected, but deserved win over Champions League side RB Leipzig. A strong line-up from the Potters played a competitively edged, physical match which was hard but fair and underlines a sense of determination within this team for the upcoming campaign.
The big surprise for everyone watching was the inclusion of Mame Biram Diouf as a right-sided wing-back. While he lacks a natural ability to beat defenders in take-ons and deliver high-quality crosses on a consistent basis, he makes up for these shortcomings in his energy and application down the wing.
It was Diouf who scored the Potters’ first on the stroke of half-time when he met Xherdan Shaqiri’s deep corner to head the teams level after Jack Butland had given away an early penalty, while the winning goal came courtesy of Marvin Compper who directed another ball into the box from Shaqiri passed his own keeper.
Ramiro Funes Mori (knee), Seamus Coleman (leg) and Yannick Bolasie (knee) are all long-term absentees with no known return date for the Toffees who will also be without James McCarthy (knee) for this opening fixture.
Ross Barkley (groin) is also sidelined, however, greater questions surround his future rather than his injury status with no likely suitors stepping up for the midfielder who has expressed a desire to leave the club this summer.
Stoke City Lineup
Mark Hughes expects to have a full squad available to choose from for his opening game though it’s looking likely he’ll be frustrated in his attempts to bring Bruno Martins Indi to the Bet365 Stadium for a reported £7m fee in time for the first fixture.
Mame Biram Diouf could also continue to play as an emergency right wing-back following his surprise inclusion there in pre-season, with Maxim Choupo-Moting eased into the first team gradually.
Key Battle: Davy Klaassen vs Xherdan Shaqiri
Out of all of Everton’s summer signings, that of Davy Klaassen has probably received the least amount of attention. Already proving to split opinion amongst Everton fans, the ex-Ajax captain has undoubted talent, but did not set any of his pre-season games on fire.
With an array of attacking midfielders at his disposal, Koeman has many options regarding the shape of the team he plays and who will play the classic number 10 role within any of these set-ups.
Where Klaassen has a distinct advantage over his teammates is that he has already formed a strong combination on the field with Rooney and this allows Koeman to get the best from both creative players when they’re used together.
The main beneficiary of the new formation Hughes has been experimenting with is most definitely Shaqiri. Afforded more space in the centre of the pitch, the Swiss maestro is also now taking up a position on the field which suits him, as it allows him to run into dangerous areas with the ball at his feet.
While Hughes has remodelled his side around the need for greater solidity in defence, he’s also built the forward line in a way that gets the most from the Swiss Messi. Whether Shaqiri can stay injury-free during this season to reap the rewards awaiting him remains to be seen.
European high-wire act
Koeman’s side arguably go into this match with the slight advantage of having already played two competitive games against MFK Ruzomberok in the Europa League. However, with return legs against Hajduk Split to follow later this month, games are coming thick and fast for the Evertonians already.
It’s a problem that has faced many teams in the past, although with a large injection of new blood into his squad, Koeman should have ample resources to at least ease the situation. It will still be a fine balancing act for the Dutch manager to maintain his teams form on all fronts, especially if they progress through the Europa competition.
As Manchester United found last season, there will be a high demand placed on his squad’s depth, something that can quickly intensify if injuries ruin your well-laid plans.
Goals, goals, GOALS!
If there’s one thing that everyone understands, it’s that goals win games. Where they come from though is the multi-million pound question.
Stoke have invested in their side defensively and bought in the attack-minded Maxim Choupo-Moting, however, they still lack a natural born killer in the penalty box.
Saido Berahino has still not fulfilled his potential following a switch from West Brom last season and 36-year-old Peter Crouch remains their most likely source of goals after topping the clubs scoring charts with seven goals last season.
Everton meanwhile, have to find a way to fill the goal-shaped void left by Romelu Lukaku’s exit from the club. Despite Rooney being England and Manchester United’s all-time record goalscorer, his goal-scoring has slowly deteriorated, and he’s unlikely to score over 15 for the Toffees in the league this season.
Sandro, a £5.25m signing from Málaga will carry the main burden of this problem for Everton. With 14 goals in La Liga last season, it remains to be seen how much of a bargain the 22-year-old Spanish striker actually is.
Christmas came early
Mark Hughes seems to have found a new system which suits the current collection of players in his squad. The 3-4-2-1, or Christmas tree formation has been used now in three consecutive matches, with each game showing a steady improvement in results as the key players now look comfortable in their new roles.
It also serves to get the best out of their new signings with Kurt Zouma and, eventually, Martins Indi naturally fitting into a solid back three along with further height and muscle provided by Ryan Shawcross.
Darren Fletcher plays a deep-lying midfield role alongside Joe Allen, providing discipline to the Welshman’s industry while Maxim Choupo-Moting has the pace and power required to fit into the right wing-back position.
As mentioned above, the lack of a prolific goal scorer could continue to be their undoing this season and what position in the table they’re actually in at Christmas is highly debatable at this point.
PREDICTION: Everton 2 – 0 Stoke City
Not only do Everton have a strong first team, they also have plenty of attacking options in reserve which should provide options later in matches as well as push competition within the dressing room for players to perform. Stoke will be a tricky side to beat once the season gets into an early rhythm meaning this will be a good time for Everton to play them.
With a need for a quality striker, Stoke will struggle to score this weekend and I can see Everton delighting the home crowd with a goal or two to set up what could be a big season for them.
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