Everton landed in Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania to kick off their preseason tour with a game against Kenyan giants Gor Mahia on Thursday afternoon. After completely rebuilding the spine of the team to accomodate for the loss of Romelu Lukaku, fans will be very interested in seeing what manager Ronald Koeman can do with the armoury he has been handed.
New additions Wayne Rooney, Davy Klaassen, and Michael Keane are all expected to feature, with Koeman saying that the entire traveling party should get some playing time.
Particular attention will be paid to how the side lines up and who plays where as Evertonians attempt to decipher how Koeman will get all his weapons on the pitch at the same time.
Koeman’s first season was all about getting the club back into Europe and that was achieved with relative comfort. He was handed the keys to the treasury this summer to attain the next milestone. Despite the club completely reworking their wage structure this offseason in an attempt to lure top talent, there is still work to do for the club to break into the top six and this afternoon's game will mark the first step in that journey.
Veteran leftback Leighton Baines spoke about the side's expectations from the game -
“This is our first pre-season match and our focus is to win. We expect an exciting match. We know little about our opponents but we are here in Tanzania for a win.
“This is an historic tour for Everton and we want to make our presence felt not only in Tanzania but in Africa.
“We will train tonight (Wednesday evening) and we are looking forward to the game tomorrow. But it’s mostly about fitness at this point as we’ve only been back just over a week. It will be good exercise for us and hopefully the local fans will turn out and enjoy it.”
Gor Mahia are easily the most decorated club in Kenya, not one of Africa's traditional football powerhouses. The club has lifted the national title fifteen times, more than any other club and are consistently among the top sides in the country.
New manager Dylan Kerr has just stepped into the role and will be immediately thrust into the limelight. Kerr led Tanzanian side Simba SC to the top three in 2015, before becoming the Under-18 academy coach at Chesterfield in League One last season.
Speaking to the media yesterday, he spoke highly of Rooney -
“He (Rooney) has had a massive career as captain of Manchester United and captain of England and for my players it is a fantastic honour to play against him. They should show him respect but not too much respect.
"I have asked my captain (Musa Mohammed) to man-mark him and if he causes him problems I will ask Musa to kick him.”
That is not exactly how Everton want to the get their preseason preparations started, and the Blues will battle the heat and hard ground while attempting to come off this African jaunt unscathed.
The stadium's turf was a major concern in the lead up after the stadium was closed for refurbishments, but Everton kit sponsors SportPesa contracted English sports ground construction and civil engineering company Clive Richardson Ltd, who have worked on Old Trafford and Saint Mary’s among others, to redo the playing surface.
Gor are on a decent run of form right now, having won the week-long, eight-team SportPesa Super Cup regional tournament that pitted the top four Kenyan and Tanzanian teams at the National Stadium last month. They also lead the Kenyan Premier League on goal difference at the halfway mark of the season.
K'Ogalo, as they are popularly known, have a number of Kenyan internationals in their side, including the previously named Mohammed, Boniface Oluoch, Harun Shakava, Francis Kahata and Ernest Wendo.
Like many African teams, the Kenyans play a fast-paced physical game that will test Everton's relatively poor fitness levels, with the 29C/84F weather expected to sap the team.
Everton will without embattled forward Ross Barkley who misses out on the trip with a purported shoulder injury. The player is yet to sign a new contract as he enters the last year of his current deal, and is widely expected to leave.
Also not on the trip is goalkeeper Joel Robles who appears to also be on his way out of the club after the signing of Pickford. When the squad numbers were released a couple of days ago, he was assigned the '33', which appears to confirm that thought.
New signing Sandro Ramirez and youngster Mason Holgate are also not on the trip after their involvement in summer tournaments.
Despite the bookies thinking this will be one-way traffic for the Toffees, don't discount the Kenyan side that easily. While shorter on talent, they will more than make up for that shortcoming with physical play and overzealous tackling.
Class should tell in the end though, overcoming rust, the conditions and the opponents on the day. Everton to win 3-1, with Rooney and Klaassen getting on the scoresheet.
How To Watch
Click here for streaming information on how to watch this preseason game.
Predicted starting XI
Your guess is as good as ours. Does Koeman start with his strongest side and bring on the kids in the second half, or mix it up from the beginning? Also, what formation will they play in?
If I had to wager, I'd say Koeman starts in a 4-3-3 with his best team starting the game -
Stekelenburg; Baines, Keane, Williams, Kenny; Klaassen, Schneiderlin, Gueye; Lookman, Rooney, Mirallas.