It all looked rosey when Everton bagged their place in the Europa League qualifiers last season.
And while the recent home game against Slovakia’s MFK Ruzomberok looks on paper at least, to be the sort of tie to ease them back into competitive action, it also marks the start of what could be a defining second-season for Ronald Koeman.
It’s stating the bleedin’ obvious to highlight the absence of Romelu Lukaku and his 25 Premier League goals last season as the deciding factor that will make-or-break-the Toffee’s season. However, the Dutchman knows there’s pressing challenges that needed to be sorted. Sharpish.
We need to talk about Ross
First up is want-away creative midfielder Ross Barkley, Lukaku’s wing-man last season before he was seduced by the bright lights of Manchester United and Champions League football, rather than Europa League qualifiers in July.
The pair were the driving force in the Toffees’ run of strong home form, particularly from December, where only a title-chasing Chelsea interrupted their perfect 10 wins from 10 games at Goodison. At stages, Everton fans could have been forgiven for dreaming of the mid 1980’s glory days. Until they hit the road, that is.
If Twitter is to be believed, Barkley’s departure, won’t grieve the fans as much as Lukaku’s exit, but high-performing replacements need to be identified, bought and slotted into these two key roles. And quick.
— Sky Sports News (@SkySportsNews) July 26, 2017
Show me the money
For once, having a transfer kitty as bare as their trophy cabinet isn’t an issue. Everton’s coffers were swelled by moneybags Farhad Moshiri’s cash injection last Spring. A new 50,000-seater stadium at Bramley-Moore dock is in the pipeline as resusitation attempts continue at the club who have lived in the shadow of their once trophy-laden rivals Liverpool for too long.
While a seventh-place finish last season at least propelled them into tonight’s Europa qualifying stage, Koeman knows that his side will need a five-game swing or more to narrow the 16-point gap this season on their Red counterparts and are 100/30 to finish above the cross-city rivals this season. And that was never going to be easy – with or without Lukaku.
Signing former Malaga striker Sandro Ramirez for £5m may prove shrewd business in time – but it’s not the sort of buy to calm the jitters on the terraces when your 87-goal striker in a Blue shirt ups and leaves.
Sure, new signings Jordan Pickford, Michael Keane, Davy Klaassen and Cuco Martina among others will add a bit of depth to the Dutchman’s squad, but they’ll still need time to bed in. And Everton could also face at least half a season without the talismanic Seamus Coleman – still recovering from a broken leg.
All this new-found booty and optimism has its downside though – particularly when trying to sign players. While Swansea playmaker Gylfi Sigurosson seems the Toffee’s No. 1 target this summer, the Welsh side know that a £50m price tag is no longer an issue for Everton and Koeman has confirmed as much.
The manager wants the Icelandic international badly, but it’s that desperation that will allow the Swans to play hard-ball until they get their asking price.
Meanwhile, cynics will point to the re-signing of Wayne Rooney as a necessary PR stunt to soften the blow of Lukaku’s departure.
Koeman has been here before though. In a nomadic managerial career since leaving Barcelona as assistant manger in 2000, Everton is the former Barca player’s ninth club in 17 years.
With the big four already starting to nudge the door on Barkley, Everton fans must fear that once the low-hanging fruit of their squad has been picked, the interest could turn towards the manager who has made a solid if not spectacular start to life in the Premier League.
Especially if he can guide the club to some much-needed silverware this term.