It was fleeting but reflexive; that moment of doubt born of frustrating games over the past 12 months, particularly at Goodison Park, where precious points were needlessly frittered away or Everton under the old regime would fail to capitalise on an opportunity to consolidate a strong position in the table.
Those old habitual instincts may die hard but, with each passing game under Ronald Koeman’s assured leadership, Evertonians are allowing confidence to creep back into their psyche, not least because of games like this.
1-0 down to a controversial goal, the cavalier Blues side of early last season might well have fought back but ended up throwing the game away again anyway; the more brittle version of just a few months ago might have caved altogether in the face of injustice, the size of the task and the frustration pouring out of the stands.
Confidence is a powerful thing in football, though, and Koeman is restoring it in spades at Everton, to the point where they simply brushed off an awful decision by Lee Mason to overlook Alvaro Negredo’s foul on Maarten Stekelenburg today and allow Middlesbrough to take the lead after 20 minutes, turned the match on its head and had it effectively won by half-time.
Koeman remarked after the game that his team probably benefitted from the incident as it lit a fire under his charges when they had failed to really spark into life up to that point. With the backing of an irate home crowd, who were in no doubt that Mason had egregiously erred, they were level within three minutes of Boro going ahead and it was fitting on the occasion of his 600th Premier League appearance, that it was Gareth Barry who scored the equaliser.
The two goals that followed to make it 3-1 at the break were also significant in their own way: a marauding Seamus Coleman evoked his much-missed glittering form of three seasons ago with a brilliant run and finish to put Everton ahead; Yannick Bolasie, meanwhile, poured more cold water on assertions from critics of his days at Crystal Palace that he lacks end product by providing either the assist or the goal itself that doubled the Toffees’ advantage in first-half stoppage time.
Most important, of course, was the fact that, while there were no further goals in the second period, the visitors never looked like getting back into the contest, even during their most concerted efforts late on when Everton sat back probably a little too much for the fans’ liking but preserved the scoreline by preventing Middlesbrough from having a single shot on Stekelenburg’s goal.
Much of that was down to the combination of a vastly improved defensive setup, a visibly fitter collection of players, and their consequent work-rate that started with the front players and extended to the back, where the gladiatorial duo of Phil Jagielka and Ashley Williams refused to give Boro an inch.
In front of them, Barry was again supported by the imperious Idrissa Gueye who turned in another man-of-the-match display of stunning effectiveness. The Senegalese seemed to cover every blade of grass, tackled anything that moved, and again weighed in with an assist, all of which added to his burgeoning reputation as the undisputed signing of the summer.
The game was won, however, with Everton’s superior talents at the other end once they had gathered the impetus to have a real go at Aitor Karanka’s outfit. Middlesbrough had started confidently and through their discipline and organisation were making things difficult for their hosts.
The Blues, with Ross Barkley sensibly restored to the starting XI but understandably tentative in the early going, were forced to be patient but were showing signs of getting on top when Boro scored. Great work by Kevin Mirallas, who worked tirelessly for the 70 minutes he was on the field, ended with Barkley forcing a parried save from Victor Valdés before the Belgian saw a low shot of his own saved.
It was a deep cross by George Friend at the other end that led to the opening goal, however, one for which Negredo was entitled to challenge but when his head connected with Stekelenburg’s arms rather than the ball, everyone expected the referee to blow for the foul. There was disbelief and fury when he pointed to the centre-circle but Everton channeled that emotion into an almost immediate response.
The second of two successive corners was swung in from the Everton left, Williams almost connected in front of the goalkeeper and when the ball bounced through towards the back of the area, Barry had peeled away smartly to benefit from time and space and sweep it home with a nicely controlled finish.
Barkley’s twisting and turning run saw him go close to putting Everton ahead but he fired over; Bolasie dropped a header into the roof of the net; and another powerful run by Barkley that ended with his shot being charged down signalled his growing confidence as the half wore on.
Boro’s resistance melted in the face of a neat move three minutes before the break, however, as Gueye picked out Coleman’s run and he dribbled inside two defenders and drew the ‘keeper, opening up both sides of the goal to allow him to tuck the ball into the corner with aplomb.
And four minutes after that came the killer third. Bolasie engineered space for a teasing cross from the right that caught Valdés in two minds as Lukaku looked certain to get decisive contact on the ball but, whether with the aid of the merest of touches from the striker or not, it swerved into the far corner to make it 3-1 at half-time.
In truth, the second half was a bit of a non-event, save for an injury that forced Lukaku off to the benefit of debutant Enner Valencia and further evidence that the manager’s decision to keep Barkley in the side was being vindicated by a purposeful display from the 22-year-old. It was he who came closest to padding the scoreline but his powerful drive from the angle was denied by a low save by Valdés.
Valencia was game and matched the tenacity and endeavour of his team-mates but he wouldn’t get the chance to mark his first appearance since arriving from West Ham with a goal. Some icing on the cake would have been nice in terms of entertainment value but there can’t have been an Evertonian who wasn’t on cloud nine when the whistle went, calling time on a fourth successive victory that puts the Blues in 2nd place.
With job done in another eminently winnable game, the Koeman effect has very much taken hold at Goodison and all the Dutchman needs to ensure now is that his team remains focused, motivated and hungry as two more league matches — with the cup tie against Norwich sandwiched in between — that fit the same description loom to close out September.
Again, that nagging doubt in the Evertonian mind might not have been completely banished yet but there’s mounting confidence that the team can win matches from any position now and that this could turn out to be a very special season indeed. Long may that feeling continue!
Everton celebrated Gareth Barry making his 600th Premier League appearance with an unchanged team from the Monday outing to Sunderland. Barkley retained his starting place, with a strong-looking bench ready to answer Koeman's calls.
Enner Valencia was named as one of the substitutes, preferred over Arouna Kone, while Cleverley reappears, edging out Tom Davies. Funes Mori and Holgate must bide their time with Williams and Jagielka forming and increasingly strong partnership at the back. A former product of the Everton Academy, Adam Forshaw, figured for the visitors.
Boro drove forward from the kick-off and won the first corner, Barry heading it away. Everton's early play was fairly scrappy as they looked to settle, playing it out of the back and looking for Barkley, who needed to show more drive. Coleman fouled Friend wide right, the free-kick delivered well and flicked on by Downing but wide.
Boro were doing an effective job of keeping Everton away from their area, while pressing high into Everton's half. A little too much pass the parcel when the home side did get the ball, Barkley eventually taking the initiative but again the ball was played backwards until a loose pass forward yielded possession.
Forshaw was onto Barkley as he turned and advanced. Play was tight down the right but Gana won a corner on 13 minutes, Mirallas putting in a nice one that Jagielka headed behind off his shoulder. Everton were still unable to penetrate forward, and Barry lost the ball, almost in with a shot on Stekelenburg. Bolasie had a chance to release Lukaku but overhit the pass, as the Blues struggled to find their rhythm.
Barkley was playing deep and got space to move but chose to pass rather than advance but at least the Blues finally drove into the Boro area from open play, but only briefly. But much better play followed, with Barkley making space and hammering a very hard shot at Valdes to enliven the crowd. Next, Barkley fed Mirallas, who ran on and shot at Valdes, the tempo improving by another notch.
But a cross in from Boro, Negredo appeared to head it out of Steklnburg's hands and into the the net... was it actually a foul? cf Andy Gray in the 1984 FA Cup Final for Everton. Stekelenburg was booked for dissent as the Blues tried in vain to persuade Lee Mason to rule the goal out.
From another good Mirallas corner, the ball ricocheted around the Boro goal area, fell to Barry and a superb left-foot strike from a tight angle into the roof of the Boro net put Everton level again after just two minutes, Williams possibly fouling Valdes in the process.
Much more spirited play form Everton saw Barkley advance and create another chance for himself (rather than playing it back to an expectant Lukaku on the edge of the area) firing sharply but over. Everton continued to press well, finally pushing Boro back deep. Some excellent play from Barry, robbing Negredo, as the fans on 30 minutes celebrated the life of 30-year season ticket holder Derek Acker, who died at the Stoke game.
Gana was scythed down in midfield, but the free-kick was cleared; however, most of the play was now in the Boro half, with Everton looking for their second goal, Barkley doing well to pass to Lukaku's feet, but the Big Man was being tightly marked, as Everton allowed their build-up play to slow down again. But Barkley turned his man and drove in, taking perhaps and extra touch that allowed defenders to get in and block his shot.
More pass the parcel at the back as the Blues sought to make space but Boro were making it difficult and the Blues were far from controlling things. Boro were allowed to charge forward, the shot flying high over the bar. Barkley started another forward move but it broke down, however, Coleman picked up the ball and showed how it should be done, skipping along the line of the Boro area and slotting nicely beyond Valdes, just inside the post.
Downing tried to make amends, his hard shot flying off Jagielka for a corner, the Blues needing to be solid at the back. Bolasie did well to dispossess Friend but then lost the ball. Forshaw then went in with studs showing on Ashley Williams. Good play from Gana and Boalsie saw the ball crossed to Lukaku in an advanced position, and he claimed a touch as the ball bounced past Valdes into the net. Barry was booked for blocking Barragan as the Blues went in at the break with a handsome two-goal lead.
No changes at the break and it was Barkley in an advanced position, wrongly called offside. Lukaku looked to break forward but was driven wide as the Blues pressed well from the off. Bolasie did well to get wide but his cross was not good enough. Coleman chased a lost ball and almost made it pay off. But the game was scrappy with an ugly spell of head-tennis until Baines got forward, winning a corner. Barkley with some great play, setting up Mirallas not once but twice, both wasted.
Barkley did very well to win the ball and jink into space before lashing a low shot that Valdes had to save down to his right. David Nugent came on for Boro as Everton's tempo of passing slowed around the hour mark.
Barkley and Gana did well to stifle a run of Nugent but the ball was not rolling well for the Blues as Boro had something of a resurgence. Mirallas finally ran at the red shirts, the ball bouncing off Lukaku then Barkley with neither taking a shot. Lukaku was kicked in the leg, and it was the opportunity for Enner Valencia to make his Everton debut.
Everton looked better for the fresh legs of Valenacia who tried to set up Barkley, Barragan tackling him for a corner. More fresh legs as Deulofeu replaced Mirallas, who had put in a pretty good stint, having lost 13 lbs under instruction from Koeman!
The imperative seemed to have waned, however, judging by the awful cross put in by Bolasie after some good work in the build-up. Given the ball again, Bolasie ran into a cul-de-sac and gave up possession, leading to a cross that Stekelenburg had to field. Boro had not given up by any means and the Blues were in danger of becoming complacent. Stekelenburg was forced to punch as Boro put in a good spell of attacking play.
Barkley again tried to get the Blues going forward but Bolasie stalled and went backward, inviting more Boro attacks. It was walking pace at times as the Blues payed it back to Stekelenburg far too often and showed no forward intent, with 10 minutes still left.
It was fairly uneventful as Everton ran down the cliock, Gareth Barry going off to a tremendous ovation as 2 minutes of added time were played out sealing a solid win on the back of a rather restrained second half that could have been much better. Still, 3 points consolidate 2nd place behind Manchester City.
Everton (4-2-3-1): Stekelenburg [Y:23']; Coleman, Williams, Jagielka, Baines; Gueye, Barry [Y:45'] (90' Cleverley); Mirallas (72' Deulofeu), Barkley, Bolasie; Lukaku (66' Valencia).
Subs not Used: Robles, Lennon, Funes Mori, Holgate.
Middlesbrough (4-2-3-1): Valdes; Barragan, Ayala [Y:37'], Gibson, Friend; De Roon, Forshaw (84' Clayton); Nsue (56' Nugent), Ramirez (70' Fischer) , Downing; Negredo.
Subs not Used: Guzan, Espinosa, Chambers,T raore.
Referee: Lee Mason
From My Seat: Middlesbrough (H)
Another full house at both ground and Room of Nonsense. Many were expecting a good debate on that eventful deadline day but with the good win up at Sunderland the main topic was should Barkley be in the starting eleven. A good majority thought we should start with the team that wiped Sunderland in the second half yet by the time we reassembled after the game it was unanimous that the manager had got it spot on with Ross heeding his words and playing something like we know he can. Get him going in today’s vein consistently and he will be a real asset.
We did manage a quick word on the deadline day fiasco but in jocular mode as the two victories since that day have all but rendered it moot. Some described it as Keystone Cops, others as complete farce with trains and boats and planes lined up ready for non-existent passengers. I liked the one where it was suggested that the negotiating team had been on the lash most of the day and had far too much ‘White’. Well, it is the Room of Nonsense so we will leave it at that and head off into the L4 evening and join the walk up along with a throng of smiling happy Blues full of confidence, such has been our first set of results. No thought of defeat amongst this lot.
On reaching Goodison road all the familiar out lets were thriving. The fat van (no bacon), hat scarf, badge stand, Blue Dragon and café were attracting queues. The turnstile worked like a dream via its new technology so it was on to my seat.
Z-Cars was received with a great roar from its first bars and every player got a good roar as there name was called, none more than Ross and Gareth who was starting his 600th game in the Premier League. Only Giggs and Lampard are ahead of him and the next ones on the list behind him have not reached 500 yet.
The game started on the whistle of our ref Mr Lee Mason. I love this ref as he always gives me the impression he comes for an easy time; just tries to get the game over without too much bother, claim his money and hop it. He didn’t disappoint me today and I admit to a chuckle when he let the Boro first goal stand even though our ‘keeper was fouled and all the Everton players politely complained — except the Stek who booted the ball high toward the dug out in disgust. Yellow card.
However the awarding of the goal roused the faithful to ‘Bear Pit’ mode and this livened our players somewhat who attacked and from a cross Williams pinned their keeper, Barry blasted home into the roof of the net and Mr Mason saw nothing so 1 –1 it was and all square and all mates again. I have to say that up to these two instances the game had been somewhat flat, with Boro having the better of what attacks there were in those first twenty odd minutes. ‘Bear Pit’ mode was continued as far as the faithful were concerned and this level of support clearly lifted the players and the intensity, aggression and pace the manager often talks about was becoming more evident.
Gana was thrilling the crowd with his all-round play and within my earshot is already a firm favourite with the Blue army. Ross was winning over many a doubter as the team effort built. So did the roar of the crowd and you could just sense a goal.
Bolasie was raiding swiftly and causing problems with his direct runs and early crosses aided, abetted by a rejuvenated Coleman who looks to be gaining confidence in the man in front of him and this was highlighted in the 42nd minute when Coleman got down the right, swapped passes with the winger and cut inside and into the box with pace and timing that left him free in the box. He didn’t hurry anything as he got to the middle of the box and cut back a deft left foot shot with supreme accuracy along the turf and into the bottom corner.
Pandemonium broke out both on the pitch and terraces. The Park End turned to the away support and bellowed out ‘We only sing when we are winning’. I enjoyed that goal and the party atmosphere stayed with us until injury time in the first half when Bolasie again got down the right and put in a wicked cross that you just had to be there to see Lukaku alone in front of goal go at the ball with his leg, then hip, then head. By this time their keeper was mesmerised and bewildered as he was transfixed, didn’t move and the ball trundled on into the net. The players celebrated but not with the usual conviction.
Our match-day announcer is always quick off the mark to rev up the scorers name – today nothing. On all our lips were the words ‘Did he touch that’; the playback on the big screen proved nothing except we all have different levels of eyesight. Some claimed they saw the faintest of touches; most of us were in the “not a clue” class but about a minute after the goal our match day announcer piped up with ‘Everton’s scorer was Bolasie, so he was in our gang of seeing no touch. Most papers I have seen say it was Lukaku’s goal and if it helps the lad’s confidence I will go along with it.
H/T whistle, 3-1 up and with no thought of letting these leads slip in the mind it was time to plan for EFL cup match. I wonder if Goodison will have some of the new lights working.
Second half and with the two goal cushion we changed the shape a little with Gana and Barry operating a little deeper and Ross taking more responsibility in the box-to-box role and his quick feet and sudden change of direction was causing trouble for the Boro defence which, by the way, was the meanest last term in the Championship.
In that second half I noticed the big strong Negredo was becoming more and more isolated and of little trouble to either Jags or Ash who are forging a decent partnership. I do just wonder, however, if it may be their lack of height that might just give them problems against the 6’3 or 6’4 brigade. We will see.
The second half continued with us that bit deeper but keeping the ball well and hitting row Z when required and no player took any offence when urged to use that tactic by the Park End coaches. I did notice though that throughout the second half we abandoned our deeper approach and had ten-minute-or-so spells of fast incisive attacking. We didn’t manage to score in these forays but we did come close a couple of times. I wonder if it’s something they are working on? It looked to me as though it could be a rewarding ploy.
The half moved on and on the hour mark they blinked first and made a sub. Evertonian Nugent replaced Nsue and just 5 or so minutes later Big Rom was seen to have a bit of a limp and in a break in play the physio told him to come off which he did then seemed to have a bit of an argument with the physio but then limped down the tunnel. He was replaced by our debutant Valencia who looked as though he knows the job and ran about well, made three very good set up headers and played as first a number nine. Then when Deulofeu replaced Mirallas he went to number 10 with Geri leading the line and bringing a lot of pace to the attack.
With about 20 minutes to go we were comfortable and well the better side but you could see Bolasie hit the wall. He charged up and down both flanks all game to that point but now he was finding it progressively harder to get back after a foray forward.
In injury time Big Ron sent on Cleverley for Gareth Barry to receive a rowdy and appreciative send off as he waved to all sides of the ground. 600 not out and he and Gana had been the kingpins in today’s victory. Age is just a number so long may he keep his present form up because we will find it very hard to replace the man.
Final whistle and some very happy Evertonians make their way off. Well, maybe not those in the Top Balcony as we had an announcement that the escalators had packed up. So the stairs it would be. I hope you all got out ok.
MotM: Idrissa Gana Gueye and Gareth Barry
Overall a good day out that threw up an odd statistic. Boro had no direct shots on goal in the game but still scored a goal. Strange, eh? Also this is the best start we have had in the Premier League years. I hope all this means something and we win something.
I will continue to do what I always do and that is my first check on the league table is as we go into Christmas as we normally finish two places either side of our position on that day. If Big Ron keeps them consistent I may get excited for once.
Norwich Tuesday night. The team selection will be interesting. See you there.
UP THE BLUES
Never go downstairs early
Gaz doesn't often get the chance for a drink at the match as he is always driving, so with this being the late kick off match, Ste, Gaz and I pre-arranged a few drinks, starting with some sun drenched beers outside the Ship and Mitre on Dale Street in the city centre. We bumped it a few other friends there also and ended up tagging along with them for a couple outside The Queens Arms on County Road before walking on to Goodison Park on a warm late-summer afternoon.
Into Goodison Park and the team remained unchanged from that which won so resoundingly at the Stadium of Light on Monday as we were pitted against another North East outfit in newly-promoted Middlesbrough. I am pleased MIddlesbrough are back in the Premier League. They have some pedigree in the top flight and growing up in the 90's I'll forever remember how they dazzled, though relegated, with impressive overseas signings Juninho, Emerson and "The White Feather" Fabrizio Ravanelli, who we came close to signing ourselves if I recall correctly. They brought with them a few Merseyside links also, in Adam Foreshaw, a product of our youth system; and, Stewart Downing, an expensive flop from over the park. The packed Goodison Park looked splendid in the early evening shade as Lee Mason got proceedings under way, Everton attacking towards the Park End in the first half.
Though they failed to register a single shot on target all game, it was refreshing to see Middlesbrough try to take the game to Everton in a lively beginning to the game. They had a good verve about their play and though the second half was really men against boys, if they can take their early efforts into their games this season they won't go far wrong in their goal of avoiding relegation one would have thought.
It was this attacking effort that led to their illegal goal on 21 minutes when a cross from captain George Friend was spilled into his own net by Maarten Stekelenburg under pressure from Alvaro Negredo. At the time I felt our goalkeeper was a bit weak and should have done better, however having seen it again there was a definite foul on Stekelenburg by Negredo and we should have been awarded a free kick. The Everton players, and Stekelenburg in particular, were furious...Stekelenburg getting booked for the second time this season for kicking the ball away in his protests. I like the cut of our keeper’s jib.
Strangely this ignited Everton and we were level within three minutes when Gareth Barry finished well from a Kevin Mirallas corner kick. It was very apt that Gareth scored on his 600th league appearance. That's two goals already this season for Gareth and it felt important for Everton to react quickly. Almost immediately you felt we'd swung the momentum our way and so it proved on 42 minutes when Seamus Coleman expertly cut in from the right flank onto his left foot and finished sharply into the corner of the net. It was a magnificent finish by Seamus and it feels like quite a long time since we've seen him get forward so fearlessly.
With half time beckoning I felt that I could join a few of the fellas for a half time drink and went down just after Coleman scored. I wasn't expecting to miss another goal of course and though delighted Everton have scored, you find yourself a bit cheesed off to have missed the goal. Chants of "Yannick Bolasie runs down the wing for you" to the tone of 90's crime TV series Heartbeat could be heard from downstairs though it wasn't the Congolese' who netted, it was in fact Romelu Lukaku who got something on the ball to divert it past Victor Valdes to make it 3-1. I'm convinced Romelu scored it as the ball seemed to change direction a bit once it bounced around him. The golden rule of course is - never go downstairs early!
That buried Middlesbrough and they offered precious little after the break, with Everton seemingly quite content to professionally see the game out for the second half. Our midfield axis of Idrissa Gueye and Gareth Barry did a great job in the middle and have become increasingly difficult to penetrate.
We washed away the night with celebratory drink. It's not often we're sitting pretty in 2nd position in the table, and I'll be sure to remain seated right until the half time whistle for the remainder of the campaign!
Stekelenburg: Had very little to do and was fouled for the own goal so it's difficult to criticise him for that, but I'll try. I'm mighty impressed with our new goalkeeper. He's been a revelation in goal, particularly after last season's horrors. To micro-criticise, I would say that two of the goals we have conceded have been down to Stekelenburg trying to persuade the referee to make a decision, when he should be trying to get rid of the ball first and ask questions later.
He went down easily in the goal we conceded at the Hawthorns, and I think he might have done something a bit different with the ball for yesterdays goal than land it back into the net. That's about the only hole I can pick however. I think we've got a fantastic goalkeeper there who should be good for the next two years at least. 6
Baines: Did well. He seems to have found that consistency again which, like a lot of things throughout the team, was missing last season. 7
Jagielka: Solid. 7
Williams: Solid. A good partnership is forming there. 7
Coleman: Great to see him back to his best and hopefully he can stay amongst the goals after this well taken effort. 8
Gueye: He struggled a bit in the first 20 minutes and I was starting to think "hmmm, he's having a bit of a shocker here". He focused however and recovered brilliantly to put in a man of the match performance. Perhaps the bargain of the season. My man of the match. 8
Barry: Also fantastic and what an achievement in playing 600 Premier League games and what a way to mark it. Congratulations Gareth. Let's hope hew can keep this level of performance up for some time yet. 8
Mirallas: He wasn't up to scratch today but he at least put a heck of a shift in and you can't really ask for more than that. 6
Bolasie: Did superbly well with our third goal and also came close to scoring with an excellent header in the first half. Safe to say he's made an excellent impact so far. 7
Barkley: Good on Ross for heading some well-publicised advice from Ronald Koeman this week. He got his head down, got involved and got stuck in. He needs to do more for sure, but it was a great step in the right direction for Ross. He'll be pleased to know he's still got the backing from the supporters as well. 6
Lukaku: Just about got on the scoresheet and though he has his critics, he's certainly missed when he's not there. 6
Valencia (for Lukaku): Was given plenty of time on the pitch but I find it difficult to assess what we're going to get from him. He appears quite a confident lad though so hopefully hew can pop up with a few goals for us throughout the season. 6
Deulofeu (for MIrallas): Got involved and did OK. 6
Cleverley (for Barry): Gareth Barry was afforded a standing ovation with just a few minutes remaining and it was Tom Cleverley who benefited with a few minutes on the field. He got involved, albeit in limited time. 6
It's still very early days but there can be no denying how satisfying it is to see Everton sitting in 3rd place in the table. Blues fans are fully aware of the caveats — it's only been four games; the team has only faced one bona fide top side so far; etc — but, regardless, the team has made its best start to a Premier League season in a decade.
It's notable because there are no easy games in the top flight anymore and that was brought home last year in the season opener against Watford — Everton needed Arouna Kone to rescue a point against the newcomers — and in what was supposed to be a comparatively easy run of games over the final five weeks of 2015 but which yielded just one win in six, that a last-gasp win at ultimately doomed Newcastle.
Unbeaten in five games and on a four-match winning streak in all competitions, Everton under Ronald Koeman have done all that could be asked of them since the 1-1 draw with Tottenham: beat the team in front of them. At times it has required decisive intervention from the touchline but that has, of course, been welcomed and long overdue.
Evertonians have seen enough false dawns over the past three decades that they will be taking nothing for granted, though. It may feel very much as things are different this time but the vast majority of Blues will surely await more evidence that the sun is indeed to rise again over the club's fortunes before getting too excited.
In that sense, a home match against newly-promoted opposition will provide a very “Everton, that” acid test of the new regime. Middlesbrough have made a solid start to life back in the Premier League with a win, two draws and last weekend's first defeat at the hands of Crystal Palace and they're the sort of team that might have posed a problem for the Toffees in previous years.
In Aitor Karanka, 43 on Sunday, they have one of the game's most promising young managers; former Manchester City striker Álvaro Negredo gives them the kind of potency up front that will be vital in their attempts to stay in the top division this season; and the likes of ex-Blue Adam Forshaw will provide some unpredictability in midfield.
More importantly, in the context of an away side who might come to Goodison looking to contain Koeman's potent attack, they have shown themselves to be dangerous from set-pieces so far and that will likely be in the Dutchman's mind as he prepares his men for this one.
However, having hinted that there would be few changes — Gareth Barry will start his 600th Premier League game, the boss has confirmed — uppermost in his thoughts will be whether to go with the team that turned Monday's game at the Stadium of Light so convincingly or to stick with the same XI that started against Sunderland. Essentially, the question concerns Ross Barkley and whether the manager feels the young midfielder is ready and able to shake off his undoubted disappointment at being hauled off at half-time in that game.
Koeman revealed in his press conference that he has spoken with Barkley about his need to eradicate the ball-retention errors that littered his performance on Monday and to improve the defensive side of his game. The latter criticism has dogged him since his days on loan at Leeds United as a teenager but his current manager has made it quite clear that defence in his team will start from the front and that all his forward players will need to press the ball.
He also outlined to the print media afterwards that there was nothing personal in his decision and that he wouldn't hesitate to drop any of this players if they fell short of expectations. Still, his decision could go either way — with this weekend's game being in the more welcoming confines of Goodison Park, Barkley could get the nod to start, although he could be just as effective coming off the bench, as Gerard Deulofeu was against Sunderland.
Mindful that he and his players still have plenty to prove, Koeman stood behind his assertion that the Europa League is Everton's most realistic target. He also argued that the biggest danger in a game where you're expecting to win as Blues fans might be this weekend is players losing focus and not making sure they're ready.
“Why after the win last Monday do I need to change from ‘we need to fight for European football to we need to fight for the Champions League'?”, he mused. “I don't know… I think that's not realistic. It's a big ambition what we have and what I mentioned in the press is that, really, we can fight for [the Europa League] but we need to continue and this Saturday is the next one and we need to prepare for that.
“[The game] can be dangerous if the player is not prepared or is sloppy at the start of the game but we know we need to play at our level to win the game. Middlesbrough has also started the season positively and it's a well-organised team with some good individual players. They're strong physically and it's a new team and we have to put our best [players] out there on the pitch.”
Whether that is with Barkley or Deulofeu in the line-up, Koeman will be fielding just that. With Romelu Lukaku back scoring again, they just need to carry on doing what they've been doing.
Referee: Lee Mason
Last Time: Everton 1-1 Middlesbrough (16 November, 2008)
Predicted Line-up: Stekelenburg, Coleman, Jagielka, Williams, Baines, Gueye, Barry, Deulofeu, Bolasie, Mirallas, Lukaku