While Everton’s Premier League form has stuttered over the opening months of the season, their progress in the Europa League has been relatively serene.
The group was described as a ‘Champions League’ group by Lille coach Rene Girard when the draw was made in August, but Everton have comfortably negotiated their opening four games to emerge with eight points.
Thursday night’s win over Lille was the most comfortable of the lot. The Blues never looked like losing the game, with Romelu Lukaku’s shot in the opening seconds setting the tone for a one-sided encounter.
The Belgian was restored to the starting line-up in one of four changes to the side that drew against Swansea, with the much-maligned duo of Leon Osman and Aiden McGeady playing just behind along with the previously much-maligned (remember that?) Steven Naismith.
McGeady can certainly be an infuriating player, possessing obvious skill but all too often failing to utilise it. However, on this occasion his surging runs down the right flank consistently produced an end product.
A 16th minute free kick found the head of Naismith, but the Scotsman couldn’t keep his header down and the ball flew over the bar.
At the other end, Ryan Mendes’ long-range effort was pushed over by Tim Howard in what would be his only significant save of the night, with Everton taking the lead and taking control minutes later.
After spending much of the opening period keeping possession in their own half, Everton finally moved the ball into a dangerous area, with Lukaku’s neat lay off finding James McCarthy.
McCarthy then found his McGeady on the right and his first time cross found Osman at the far post, the midfielder opening up his body to half volley into the far corner.
The 33-year-old has been the subject of intense debate among the fans this week, many of whom have questioned the club’s decision to offer him a new contract.
His performance won’t have answered all his critics, but his goal was a timely riposte and capped a fine week on a personal level for the midfielder.
Lille goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama had to be at his best again four minutes before the break, spreading himself to block Naismith’s goal bound effort after a delightfully chipped through ball by Leighton Baines.
Enyeama could do little moments later, however, with captain Phil Jagielka meeting McGeady’s corner and burying the header into the back of the net.
The tempo dropped in the second half with Lille resigned to their fate – which must have been disappointing to see for the travelling fans, who deserved to see their team show more fight.
A third was still needed to seal the win though and Lukaku nearly got it with a 25-yard free kick that was well saved by the busy Enyeama early in the second half.
Lukaku revealed earlier in the week that he was finally fully fit after nursing a toe injury through the opening weeks of the season and that was reflected in his performance.
Lukaku led the line well and was unlucky not to find himself on the scoresheet – he was later incorrectly flagged offside when put clean through.
Everton did get the third on the hour mark and it was a goal that epitomised what Roberto Martinez is trying to build at Goodison Park.
After patiently keeping possession, Everton then upped the tempo as they approached the Lille half, Lukaku feeding Baines down the left and in turn finding Naismith, who took a touch before powering the ball into the roof of the net.
Everton impressively saw the game out to collect another welcome clean sheet, their early season defensive woes hopefully fading from view.
Gareth Barry had to go off late on with a shin injury, though a lively cameo from Darron Gibson suggests he could be an able deputy.
Though after another breathless performance, James McCarthy looks capable of filling both defensive midfield slots on his own.
The win keeps Everton one point clear of Wolfsburg at the top of Group H, with the trip to Germany later this month looking like it will decide who finishes top.
Everton’s current points haul of eight should be enough to see them though either way, baring an unusual set of results.
But after leading the group for so long it would be disappointing to slip down at the death, which would mean a much tougher team in the last 32.
But even if that is the case Everton have nothing to fear. There is a swagger about them in Europe this season and they certainly look like a side that is ‘embracing’ the competition as Martinez said they should.
They are more than capable of securing another win against Wolfsburg, though given their current position in the group, a draw would do me just fine.