November 27, 2014 - 6:00 GMT, 1:00 EST
TV Info - Live Soccer TV
Everton looks to build momentum over two competitions for the first time this season when the club travels to Wolfsburg for a match on Thursday.
A victory for the Toffees on Thursday would not only secure a place in the knockout stage, but lock up the club's place atop Group H. Still, Wolfsburg can take pole position with a victory as well, and be firmly in the driver's seat heading into the final group stage matchday.
Taking top spot in the group is an important achievement if it can be attained. The first round of the Europa League's knockout stage is seeded, with Europa League group-winners and the top four third-place Champions League teams being seeded against Europa League group runners-up and the bottom for third-place Champions League teams.
As of right now, winning the group would mean avoiding Tottenham, Inter, Fiorentina, Manchester City, Juventus, Zenit, and more in the Round of 32. Clearly then, there's still plenty at stake for the top two teams in Group H.
Arouna Kone is somewhat surprisingly part of the squad that has traveled to Germany. Unfortunately, Steven Naismith, Leighton Baines, Gareth Barry, Darron Gibson, and Steven Pienaar all have not made the trip due to injury. John Stones, Antolin Alcaraz, and Bryan Oviedo remain long-term injury absences as well.
As a result, youngsters Tyias Browning, Ryan Ledson, and Luke Garbutt are part of the 20-man squad.
When Everton first took on Wolfsburg in September, it was a matchup of teams with similar stories -- talented squads capable of challenging for Champions League spots in their domestic leagues, but that had gotten off to slow starts.
While Roberto Martinez's club has still failed to show that class on a consistent basis, Wolfsburg has been flying through its Bundesliga campaign since the clubs last met.
Wolfsburg has won seven of its last nine matches, including a six match win-streak that ended with a 3-2 loss at Schalke this weekend. In those nine matches, Wolfsburg outscored its opponents a staggering 20-6.
Swiss left-back Ricardo Rodriguez has been a contributor on both ends of the pitch. The defender has picked up three goals and an assist in Bundesliga play, in addition to pitching in to Wolfsburg's stellar defensive record. Evertonians certainly remember his spectacular free-kick at the death when the teams met in September.
Another familiar Wolfsburg player is former Chelsea midfielder Kevin De Bruyne. The Belgian leads the Bundesliga with nine assists, with almost double the runner-up in the category (Werder Bremen's Zlatko Junuzovic has five). He also has three goals and two assists in Europa League play.
Croatian striker Ivica Olic leads Wolfsburg with five goals in the Bundesliga, but has yet to score in Europa League play.
Expect Wolfsburg to line up in a similar fashion to Everton -- a 4-2-3-1 with Luis Gustavo and Joshua Guilavogui playing in front of the back-four, allowing De Bruyne, Ivan Perisic, and Vierinha to get forward in support of Olic.
What to Watch For
If we've learned one thing about Martinez this year, it is that he takes the Europa League seriously. Earlier in the season, I might have guessed that Martinez would play it safe with his squad selection in this match with an important match at fellow mid-table club Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday.
That has not been the Spaniard's style though, and I do not expect him to change his mentality now.
Still, his squad selection will be limited with Baines, Barry, and more unavailable for selection.
Tony Hibbert did well to replace Baines at left-back against West Ham, and it is tough to see Martinez removing him from the starting XI for the inexperienced Luke Garbutt in a major European match.
Leon Osman did similarly well filling in for Barry against West Ham, but helping shut down the central midfield of the Hammers is vastly different than having to contain De Bruyne and co. Martinez will have to at least consider bringing in Muhamed Besic to play alongside James McCarthy to try to control a very dangerous Wolfsburg attack.
The absence of Steven Naismith opens up the no. 10 role for either Ross Barkley or Samuel Eto'o. Barkley has gotten few opportunities to play in his natural position behind the striker, both because Naismith has been so effective there, and because injuries and form have left Everton few options at wing, where Barkley is willing to play.
It would not be surprising to see both in the lineup on Thursday, in the three-man attacking-midfield alongside Kevin Mirallas or Aiden McGeady.
The Final Word
Martinez would certainly take a draw from this match as he did in the club's other two Europa League away matches. But, if the Toffees are to steal another road point, the team's performance will have to be even better than it was in Lille and Krasnodar.
With no Barry, Baines, and Stones, can Everton do enough defending to keep Wolfsburg at bay for 90 minutes?
The answer to that question may decide who wins Group H.