Evertonians who made the trip to Lille this week will likely not forget this leg of the Blues' 2014-15 European Tour in a hurry, and not merely for the unfortunate incidents that marred the build-up to the Blues' third Europa League Group H fixture that saw fans attacked outside a bar last night and police move in with tear gas this afternoon to disperse the large gathering in the town square.
Everton supporters are believed to have flocked to a European game in their greatest numbers since the Cup Winners' Cup Final in 1985 and they certainly made their presence in their massed ranks heard in Stade Pierre-Mauroy, drowning out the tournament anthem before kick-off and the opposition fans for much of the contest.
The match itself, however, was an instantly forgettable affair but one which ended with a satisfactory, "job well done" result that leaves Roberto Martinez's side unbeaten and top of Group H at the halfway stage. It was very similar in many ways to the one in Krasnodar three weeks ago, characterised by poor ball retention by Everton's midfield, particularly in the first half, and a general lack of adventure going forward.
Ross Barkley made his second start of the season and played 90-plus unspectacular but vitally important minutes in terms of his fitness, although a better final ball by Aiden McGeady would have rewarded a wonderful, potentially match-winning pass from the 20 year-old in the 70th minute. Unfortunately, having collected Barkley's ball in space down the right channel, the Irishman failed to pick out either Romelu Lukaku or Samuel Eto'o in the middle and a good opportunity to break the deadlock went begging.
McGeady himself could have won it for Everton with substitute Lukaku's first involvement a few minutes earlier but Victor Enyeama in the Lille goal managed to get enough of his body on the ball to prevent it from slipping underneath him and into the net. Lukaku had come on for the largely ineffective Steven Pienaar in the 63rd minute and helped swing the attacking pendulum more in the Blues' direction but there would be no goal-bearing late flourish like that which earned a point in Russia.
Instead, the emphasis and the plaudits rested with defence where Everton were disciplined and compact, denying Divock Origi any real opportunity to score a blow for his parent club, Liverpool, by scroring against their arch rivals from across Stanley Park. The Belgian striker was a handful but was largely well contained by the Blues' back line; on the occasions he did manage to throw off the attentions of Tony Hibbert on the Everton right or Leighton Baines down the opposite flank, his delivery was often wasteful.
It was Origi's teammate Idrissa Gueye who went closest to scoring in the entire game when he raked a 20-yard shot off the outside of Tim Howard's left-hand post but the American wasn't unduly troubled over the 90 minutes, a testament to a rock-solid display by Phil Jagielka and Hibbert, in particular. Distin, deployed to avoid Anton Alcaraz playing three games in eight days had a slightly shaky beginning on his return from a month on the sidelines but soon settled down, while Gareth Barry was a tireless presence breaking things up in front of the back four.
Enyeama had even less to do in the first half. A routine save from McGeady's tamely-hit first-time shot was the only shot he had to make, although he was fortunate to see Eto'o's attempted ball across his area deflect off the heel of a defender and elude the two Blue shirts ready to pounce in the centre with a quarter of an hour gone.
The second half was better from Everton's perspective and they started to get a greater grip in terms of possession, although they suffered a brief scare when Simon Kjaer nudged a ball from the right on into the Blues' six-yard box and Barkley had to hook it away from danger in front of his own goal.
Eto'o tested Enyeama for the first time with a direct free kick that he despatched straight at the Nigerian before Lukaku's introduction led to the chance for McGeady.
The game would noticeably open up as the clock ticked into the final quarter of an hour but chances remained at a premium until Eto'o popped up a in good position with a minute left of the regulation 90 but his curling shot drifted inches wide of the post.
So not much for the estimated 10,000 Blues to cheer except another point that keeps Everton on course to qualify for the next phase of the competition if they continue in the current vein of winning their home matches. As we have already seen this season, the performance probably suffered from a lack of continuity in the team given the five changes Martinez made to the side that started against Aston Villa last Saturday. But the starting XI was in line with the manager's longer-term strategy of handing experience and game time to a number of players who aren't automatic starters when the stakes aren't quite as high as they will be when the real business in this competition starts in the New Year.
Muhamed Besic, in particular, was a consistently tidy and energetic presence in central midfield and though Eto'o will feel as though he could have done better – not least when a lovely interchange with Steven Pienaar in the first half got caught under his feet as he bore down on goal – the 90 minutes he got will keep him ticking over in terms of match sharpness.
Everton's starting line-up for the Europa League clash in Lille includes Ross Barkley, Samuel Eto'o, Muhamed Besic, Tony Hibbert and a comeback for Sylvain Distin. Lukaku and McCarthy are part of a very strong-looking subs bench. Missing from the Everton line-up are Osman and Naismith, who are rested and did not travel; Stones and Mirallas who are out injured; Kone and Oviedo who are still in recovery.
Lille include Liverpool loan striker and Divock Origi, a Belgian teammate of Romelu Lukaku, and Idrissa Gueye (no relation?) With trouble caused by some nasty locals and aggressive riot police grabbing the headlines, Everton started the game leading Europa League Group H on 4 points, kicking off and looking confident but adventurous passes not quite coming off until Origi got hold of the ball and fired in a shot that was blocked away for a corner. Hibbert did enough to prevent a dangerous ball from being converted as the attacker pushed him down.
McGeady gave up the second corner on 5 mins, Pienaar collapsing rather too easily to relieve the pressure. McGeady picked out Barkley but he was offside, while Pienaar's control going forward was poor. Lille were doing well running at Everton on the flanks and getting in some dangerous crosses. Barkley needed attention for a cut on the head, returning heavily bandaged.
Some Eto'o genius almost dug out a chance from nothing as he broke away from a defender on the bye-line, then Besic saw his regulation early yellow card for a studs-high interception at waist height that was deemed reckless despite him winning the ball. Everton were trying to play their normal game, but Lille were always looking to get the ball forward with some pace, testing Hibbert in particular, but their crosses were thankfully inaccurate.
A great exchange between Eto'o and Pienaar looked to put the striker in but he could not dig the ball out from his feet to make the shot. Pienaar made another direct giveaway in the middle that invited more Lille pressure. Origi was testing Distin, who had the measure of the teenager's pace. Gana fired in a good shot that curled away at the last moment.
Pienaar won a free-kick off Kjaer by the corner flag that Baines delivered well and it was Kjaer who headed away, and a promising attack ended with a lazy flicked giveaway from McGeady. The referee was very protective of any high kicks iat close quarters, to the point of being ridiculous on Eto'o, who checked his raised leg at the knee but was still called. Lille then got a wide free-kick that was defended well and Everton almost counter-attacked with pace, but Lille were very quick to track back en masse. Eto'o's lack of control of direct balls played hard was eerily similar to Lukaku's...
McGeady looked to play Barkley ahead in a move that was just too fast for the youngster as Rodelin fired in a shot from distance that Howard gathered with ease. Barkley was a little too sloppy and Origi seemed set to cut Everton apart but again the Lille attack failed to connect. At the other end, Kjaer again fouled Pienaar, and from 30 yards, Barkley fired well over.
Everton passing at the back drew pressure that saw Balmont drive a hopeful shot from Balmont as the ref blew for half-time with zero added time.
No changes at the break, Distin showing he still had the measure of Origi with some good defensive work down the line. Jagielka was next to be tested down the other flank and the Everton captain's interception was superb with nothing coming from the early Lille corner.
Everton's forward play was still leaving a lot to be desired, Jagielka the next to pump a useless ball up direct to an opponent. Origi did make space behind him but dug a little divot as he lashed the ball wide of Howard's goal. Barkley was chopped down on the edge of the Lille area and Eto'o looked to take charge, but struck it directly at Enyeama.
Pienaar and Beria got into it needlessly over a disputed non-penalty 'handball' and saw yellow. From the corner Kjaer's flick caused panic but Barkley bundled it away as Everton withstood some real pressure before the hour mark. Time for Romelu Lukaku... on in place of Steven Pienaar, so two up front!
Lukaku's first touch almost led to a goal, McGeady unable to get it around the good advance of Enyeama. Barkley's drive was then headed behind for a corner as Everton finally threatened with intent but Baines's curled corner was headed away. More Blues possession but still the passing moves breaking down too easily. Barkley finally released McGeady down the right and, with all the time in the world to find any of three or four blue shirts, his cross straight to a defender was absolutely abysmal.
Lille played some long balls that got Howard into the game, albeit comfortably, the pattern of the game having changed markedly since Lukaku's arrival, but with as yet no end product. Mendes then replaced Rodelin and a couple of Lille corners were repelled. Gana then collapsed under a late shin-tap to win a dangerous free-kick that Kjaer fired into the Everton wall.Off another Lille corner, Gana's distant shot was well, well wide.
Into the final 10 minutes, and Everton's mission to be more direct in the final third continued to be thwarted by a mixture of good Lille defence and poor Everton passing. The solution? Atsu on for the perennially disappointing McGeady. More promising moves looked to finally break the deadlock into the final minute, with Lille getting another corner again defended away. Barkley came off for a pointless McCarthy substitution at the death (all of 8 seconds in the game!) and the Blues held on without really getting close enough to read Enyeama's shirt number, never mind the whites of his eyes.
Everton's Europa League campaign moves to Lille with a second-successive away fixture in the competition following the draw at Krasnodar earlier in the month. Roberto Martinez's men sit on top of Group H going into the third round of matches and another good result on the road would enhance their chances of qualifying to the knockout phase.
Surprisingly, this will be the first time that the Toffees have faced French opposition in a competitive game but the location in northern France is one laden with history for the club given that former player Wilf Toman fought and died on the battlefields there in World War I along with the father and two uncles of Reverend Harry Ross, formerly of St Luke's and chaplain to Everton FC, who all survived the conflict.
97 years later, Evertonians will descend on Lille in entirely better circumstances and are expected to do so in large numbers. The club were given an official allocation of 5,000-plus tickets but an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 Blues are believed to have got tickets for the 50,00-seat Stade Pierre-Mauroy which should ensure an occasion not to be forgotten for both sets of supporters.
In addition to injured duo Kevin Mirallas and John Stones, Everton will be without four players for the trip across the Channel. Leon Osman and Steven Naismith are rested while Arouna Kone and Bryan Oviedo were declared by Martinez as not fit enough to take part. Oviedo played almost an hour of the Capital One Cup defeat at Swansea a month ago and made a late cameo at Manchester United two weeks ago but is clearly still feeing his way back to full fitness after nine months out with a broken leg. Kone, meanwhile, is still waiting to see his first action since knee surgery a year ago.
The absence of Osman and Naismith will mean at last two changes to the team that beat Aston Villa at the weekend, with Samuel Eto'o a possible starter as he was against Krasnodar, while Aiden McGeady, who also started that game, could come back into the side. Steven Pienaar could also play after coming on as a substitute last Saturday while Ross Barkley will be hoping to build on his first start of the season.
Everton are the only team to have won so far in Group H and a win over Lille would extend their lead at the top of the group and make them odds-on favourites to progress to the next phase. The Ligue 1 side have drawn both of their games so far and Krasnodar's 1-1 draw here last month offers something for the Blues to either emulate or better.
Like the Blues, they have had their injury problems this season and currently sit in 10th place in France's top flight, some 10 points off the top but Martinez suggested that his team's double-header with Lille could prove decisive for Everton in Group H.
"Lille are a team we respect and admire," he said in his pre-match press conference. They have had a few injuries and probably they are seeing tomorrow's game as the most important of their campaign. For us it is exactly the same, and it could be some sort of a little final within the group stage due to the importance of these games."
Romelu Lukaku will likely go up against compatriot Divock Origi if both Belgian start. The 19 year-old is the Great Danes' top scorer while Cape Verdean winger Ryan Mendes has weighed in with a couple of assists already so keeping those two players quiet could be key for Everton.
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