After a fast-paced, exciting, and occasionally frustrating offseason, Everton Football Club is set to get back on the pitch in its first competitive fixture of the 2017-18 season.
The club’s opponent? MFK Ruzomberok — Slovakia’s third-placed club from last season, who will be coming to Goodison Park in a Europa League fixture.
Thursday’s match will be the first of a two-leg third qualifying round matchup between the two clubs. The winner of the round will move onto the Europa League playoff round, the final step before securing a place in the group stage of Europe’s secondary competition.
For MFK Ruzomberok, just making it to this round of the Europa League is a major achievement. The club takes its name from its home city of Ruzomberok, a town of around 30,000 people.
This is the club’s first appearance in any European competition since 2006-07. Ruzomberok won the Slovakian domestic league and cup in 2005-06 (the club’s only major silverware since the formation of the Slovak Super Liga in 1993), earning them a spot in the 2006-07 Champions League.
The club reached the third qualifying round of the Champions League that year, before suffering a massive 5-0 aggregate defeat to CSKA Moscow, sending them into the playoff round of the UEFA Cup, where they went out to Belgium’s Club Brugge 2-1 on aggregate.
Since then, Ruzomberok has mostly languished in the Slovak mid-table, until a third-place finish last season earned the club a ticket into the first qualifying round of the 2017-18 Europa League. The club needed a late goal in the second leg of the first qualifying round to squeak past Serbian club Vojvodina 3-2 on aggregate.
In the second qualifying round, they needed another late push in the second leg, scoring twice in the final 30 minutes to beat SK Brann of Norway 2-1 on aggregate.
The club is composed largely of Slovakian nationals, very few of whom have any significant experience at the international level. The one exception is club captain Marek Sapara, a 34-year-old midfielder who has 38 caps with the Slovakian national team. However, Sapara played only 30 minutes over the two legs of his club’s second qualifying round matchup.
On paper, Ruzomberok simply doesn’t have the talent to compete with a club of Everton’s caliber. Expect the Slovakian club to bunker and counter, especially at Goodison — which could be filled with 40,000 supporters, more than 10 times the crowds Ruzomberok is accustomed to playing in front of.
Ramiro Funes Mori remains the club’s major injury concern going forward. Ross Barkley is dealing with an injury as well, but given Ronald Koeman’s statements on his future at the club, his health has no real impact on any potential inclusion in the side.
Every player Everton signed this summer has now appeared in a friendly, with Jordan Pickford, Sandro Ramirez, and Cuco Martina presumably available for selection.
Projected Starting XI
We took an in-depth look at Koeman’s lineup and tactical options earlier this week, which we encourage you to take a look at here.
In short, expect Koeman’s 4-3-3 with the following personnel:
Pickford; Baines, Williams, Keane, Kenny; Schneiderlin, Gueye, Klaassen; Mirallas, Rooney, Sandro
The Final Word
Everton should win and win big in this match, even with the understanding that the squad is still a bit of a work in progress. Ruzomberok struggled to get past two clubs that are clearly inferior to Everton in the previous two rounds of the Europa League, so there’s no reason to think the Toffees will struggle here.
Look for Koeman’s boys to press the match early and try to get the crowd involved against a side that will be unaccustomed to playing at such a large venue. Though the Toffees are still likely to make one or two more attacking signings, Sandro, Rooney, and Mirallas should be more than sufficient to make the difference on Thursday.