Everton once again opens their EPL campaign against a newly promoted side, this time hosting Watford at Goodison Park. Considered by many as a relegation candidate, Watford provides Everton with the chance to start the season quickly before a brutal stretch of fixtures to open the season.
When: Saturday, August 8th at 3:00pm BST/ 10:00am EST
TV: NBC Sports Premier League Extra Time (Check local listings)
Team News: The injury bug has hit Everton again in preseason. Gerard Deulofeu appears set to miss the season opener after injuring his hamstring in preseason. Left winger Steven Pienaar will continue his prolonged absence from the first team after suffering a hamstring injury as well. Thankfully fears of Romelu Lukaku missing out on the Watford match have been assuaged, Roberto Martinez has stated the Belgian striker will be available for the match.
There have been reported knocks against John Stones and Kevin Mirallas, but in the interest of happiness we are pretending they will be perfectly fine.
Watford seems likely to miss out on having 2 starters available. Manager Quique Flores has stated that Almen Abdi and Jose Jurado will likely miss out on the trip to Goodison. Jurado injured his thigh in preseason preparation and could make a return to the team in time for Saturday, and Abdi's knee injury is all but certain to keep him out of the game. It will be a boost to Everton's chances as they attempt to secure all three points
Expected Lineup: (4-5-1) Howard, Coleman, Stones, Jagielka, Baines, Barry, McCarthy, Mirallas, Cleverley, Barkley, Lukaku
Not too many surprises here, the only real question is what Martinez is going to do on the wings. Kevin Mirallas is certainly going to start, but his opposite number is in doubt. Steven Naismith will certainly be a candidate, but he's generally been ineffective on the wing. Aiden McGeady seems to have done nothing in preseason which leaves new signing Tom Cleverley to get his first start in an Everton shirt. Martinez has used the former Manchester United man out wide before, and his desire to cut inside will be useful for Seamus Coleman.
What to Watch For:
Just what does Seamus Coleman do? The right back had a rather quiet season last year, and his pace going forward is going to be key. When Coleman is attacking down the flank at pace Everton's attack is much more balanced and effective. If Coleman can make the runs down the right, even if he isn't always getting the ball, it is a good sign that Everton's attack is going well.
The other big sign is going to be the performance of Gareth Barry. Helpless would be a kind description of how Barry looked for most of the previous season, and his distribution makes the Everton attack go. If he's able to play 1-2 steps quicker then we should see a much quicker transition from attack to defense as well as an increased level of possession in the middle of the field. His defensive positioning will also be key. Last year Everton had to rely on James McCarthy as a lone DM, that's how bad Barry was at defending. It caused all sorts of problems including an increase in quality chances. Couple that with a poor Tim Howard and it was a recipe for disaster.
One final thing to keep in mind is pace of play. Everton did not have a lot of urgency in most matches, they were content to slowly build from possession and attack. With the quality of players in the midfield and up top, Everton should be able to play at a much quicker pace, especially when there is an excellent opportunity to exploit the defense. An increased pace of play generally indicates Everton is performing well and really has control of the game.
This should be a normal Roberto Martinez style game. Everton is going to attempt to possess from the defense forward. Howard is going to distribute quickly and to his defenders. From there Barry or McCarthy are likely to take the ball and get it forward to a hopefully in-form Ross Barkley to create some magic.
Of course with Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman we should see plenty of attacking from the defense. Mirallas and any other winger will be asked to cut in to give the fullbacks an opportunity to overlap with the midfield. This will force the defense to stay compact or provide room for various combination plays, hopefully springing someone in behind the defense.
In the back, expect John Stones and Phil Jagielka to spend a lot of time chasing long balls. Both center backs will be asked to cover for their fullbacks when they go forward, and their speed and decision making will be critical. Gareth Barry will drop in between the center backs to provide cover in these cases, though it could make more sense for James McCarthy to do it given his higher work rate and younger legs.
Prediction: 2-1 It won't be pretty, but Everton starts the 2015-2016 campaign off right with all three points and two goals from Romelu Lukaku