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Aug 10, 2014

Early puzzles for Martinez to solve

ESPN FC's Janusz Michallik weighs in on the teams who are likely to be involved in the 2014 English Premier League title race.

After the bright lights and star-studded opponents on the United States tour last year, this preseason signaled a low-key contrast for Everton -- the visit of Porto to Goodison Park being the most attractive fixture.

Having crossed paths with Juventus, Real Madrid and Valencia last summer, the Toffees' primary tests this time came from Porto, Celta Vigo and newly promoted Bundesliga side SC Paderborn.

- Report: Lukaku may miss Prem opener
- Report: Martinez: Not Atsu progress
- Report: Stones extends Everton deal

Regardless of the opposition though, preseason is largely a time for experimentation in terms of personnel and formation. In that regard, the preseason has proven useful. Despite employing a back three against Leicester and adapting the usual midfield setup against Porto and Celta Vigo, Everton still look best suited to their customary 4-2-3-1 approach.

Completing their five-match schedule on Saturday, losing 3-1 to Paderborn, the Blues ended the preseason with two draws and three defeats. Still, before anybody reaches for the panic button, it is worth remembering that preseason results are unimportant.

What is important, though, is fitness and, to a lesser extent, individual rather than collective performances. In terms of performance, the biggest positive has been the first impression made by new signing Muhamed Besic.

For a player who has spent his career in defensive midfield or defence, Besic has demonstrated all the traits expected of him. The tackling has varied in its execution, from the well-timed to the slightly wild, but the ability is evident, as is the composure in possession.

Besic has also shown adeptness in other areas. While it remains early, long-range passing has surfaced, along with quick feet and the ability to dribble out of trouble. Completing his first 90 minutes for his new team on Saturday, Besic has been the standout player this preseason.

New arrival Muhamed Besic has impressed during Everton's preseason.
New arrival Muhamed Besic has impressed during Everton's preseason.

Others who have impressed include Darron Gibson, who has looked sharp whenever called upon, stepping up his recovery after a serious injury, and Luke Garbutt, who shone in the early stages of preseason before injury struck. Gareth Barry is another, slotting seamlessly back into midfield, while young forward Chris Long offered a glimpse of his potential with an exquisite goal against Paderborn.

With those players impressing on the performance front, it is fitness where the concerns arise. Heading into the new campaign, Seamus Coleman has played less than 30 minutes of football due to injury, while Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas have not featured at all.

Though clearly eyeing the bigger picture, not wanting two of his key players rushed back after their World Cup endeavours -- Lukaku was Everton's top scorer last season with 15 goals, while Mirallas claimed the most assists (eight) -- the potential absence of these players at the start of the season would present Martinez with his first major obstacle of 2014-15.

Without Lukaku, and with Arouna Kone still some way from returning, the options are scarce. Steven Naismith is a willing runner, but lacks the physical presence and technical ability to lead the line on his own. After that, there is a raft of promising but hugely inexperienced youngsters.

It is a similar story at right back -- should Coleman not recover -- with alternatives limited to the experienced yet fading Tony Hibbert or the youthful exuberance of Tyias Browning. While Hibbert is a relatively strong defensive option, he is no match for the overall quality, forward play and recovery pace of Everton's current player of the season.

As such, the starting lineup on the opening day (and maybe a few fixtures after that) will make for interesting reading. Should any of the aforementioned trio of Coleman, Mirallas and Lukaku miss out in the early stages, Martinez must find a way to kick-start the new season without them and -- while he and his players are more than capable of doing so -- that is no easy task.

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