Everton's testing schedule as Ronald Koeman plots further progress
Almost a year to the day since beating Yeovil 4-0 in a League Cup tie, Everton manager Ronald Koeman is instead attempting to guide his team into the group stages of the Europa League.
None of the goal scorers from that League Cup fixture have played a single minute of football this season. For one reason or another, more than half of the 14 players used against Yeovil are unavailable for selection when Everton travel to Hajduk Split in their Europa League playoff round second leg on Thursday. A lot has changed in a year.
By the end of the month, Everton will have already played seven competitive fixtures, three more than this stage last season. The fixture list shows a run of three away games in six days and concludes with an early kick-off against champions Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. Getting the balance right is vital as Koeman and his players try to deal with playing Monday -- Thursday -- Sunday this week.
The short turnaround and added travel between games only increases the difficulty of a testing week and decisions needed in terms of how best to keep the squad fresh. In regards to balancing the workload of players, while not necessarily relevant to this match, the news Wayne Rooney has retired from international football is a timely boost. Rooney turns 32 in October and can now use international breaks to rest and recharge rather than chase lost causes for England.
Elsewhere, record signing Gylfi Sigurdsson should play a more prominent role after a 30-minute debut on Monday, as the Icelandic midfielder is short on match sharpness after a disrupted preseason. Others named as substitutes at the Etihad could feature depending on the extent to which the squad rotates.
This week was always going to be the first significant test for an overhauled squad. While the 1-1 draw against Manchester City halted a four-game winning streak, it also left plenty of positives to take into these next two matches preceding the international break.
Koeman had praised the attacking talents of the home team on the eve of the City game and likened a clean sheet to a miracle. Everton fell eight minutes short of completing their task but could still reflect on an encouraging display in defence.
The draw on Monday night coupled with results last season mean the Toffees are the first team Pep Guardiola has failed to beat in his first three league meetings as manager. That aforementioned statistic should further boost confidence and stand Everton in good stead for a similar test at Chelsea to close out the week, although Europa League qualification is the next item on the agenda before then.
After a first leg in which crowd trouble overshadowed the match itself, Everton emerged with a clean sheet and a two-goal lead when Hajduk Split visited Goodison Park. This second leg presents a different challenge to that faced at the Etihad three days earlier. Everton should expect to see far more of the ball in this match. What is important is how the team makes use of it. Shortcomings on the ball were the main collective criticism in the City draw, especially the second half. Koeman voiced his disappointment afterwards after his players failed to capitalise on their numerical advantage and conceded possession cheaply via too many long balls.
This Europa League outing will require better use of the ball, as the expectation is that Everton should control the game as they did in the first leg before losing concentration in the second half. Silencing what is sure to be a hostile home crowd and dictating the match is the first step. Since an away goal would leave Split needing to score four, a considered but nonetheless positive approach is necessary.
Never one to shy away from speaking his mind, Koeman also called out his players after their performance in the first leg of this playoff round saw a bright first half fade and allow the visitors too many sights of goal. The Everton manager will expect his team to learn from that and maintain their concentration throughout the second leg.
Failure to push on in that game means there is still a job to do. Another goal or two in the first meeting and Koeman would have been able to rest the majority of his first team here. Tougher tests either side of this match cannot excuse any complacency. Progress to the Europa League group stage and a convincing display in the process is the order of business on Thursday.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.