Here we go again!
Everton’s season has technically already begun but things really kick into gear with the return of the Premier League and the visit of Stoke.
Optimism is understandably high after a hugely productive summer that has yielded seven new signings to date.
Five possibly even six of those new players are likely to start on Saturday as the Ronald Koeman revolution really begins to take shape.
However, given the scale of the rebuilding job (and our greed for more new players) there is still plenty of work to be done before the transfer deadline.
Romelu Lukaku’s goals will take some replacing, with Sandro Ramirez and Wayne Rooney only partly filling the void vacated by the Belgian. A left-sided defender is also on the wanted list with Ramiro Funes Mori sidelined with a knee injury.
And then there’s Gylfi Sigurdsson, whose on-off transfer from Swansea has cast a minor shadow over preparations for the new campaign.
Things went so smoothly at the start of the summer we perhaps forgot how complex transfers can be, particularly when negotiating with a side understandably reluctant to lose their best player.
Ronald Koeman wanted the Icelander in by now and appeared visibly frustrated at the hold-up when asked about it last weekend. The current impasse is helping no one so both sides need reach an agreement and move on.
Despite the frustration over Sigurdsson (and the ostracised Ross Barkley) the club’s pre-season was extremely positive. The Toffees remained unbeaten and eased through to the play-off round of the Europa League.
That good preparation was vital as there is precious little time for Everton to get up to speed when the real action kicks off.
A tough set of fixtures, featuring games at Chelsea and Man City as well as the two-legged tie with Hajduk Split, lie in wait before the month is out.
That places greater importance on Saturday’s opener against Stoke, with three points vital if Everton don’t want to risk sinking down the table early on.
Stoke’s 10th successive season in the top flight looks to be something of a watershed moment, with Mark Hughes casting off some of the old guard and hoping the new generation can lift the side to bigger and brighter things.
After three successive top 10 finishes, successfully steering the team away from the physical rough and tumble style of Pulis, last season’s 13th place was an understandable disappointment.
Luring players like Xherdan Shaqiri, Bojan Krkic and Marko Arnautovic to the Potteries was a considerable achievement for Hughes, but the team has yet to really kick on as anticipated.
Indeed last season’s 13th place mirrors the position they found themselves in when Pulis left four years ago. They may have swapped Pulis’ pragmatism for a more flamboyant approach under Hughes, but was it all worth it?
In response to last year’s disappointment Hughes has shipped out some of the old guard – stalwarts such as Jonathan Walters, Phil Bardsley and Glenn Whelan have all departed. While the sale of Marko Arnautovic to West Ham is a significant blow to a side already lacking in creativity.
Darren Fletcher is a solid Premier League pro and will fill the gap vacated by Whelan, while Kurt Zouma will be a shrewd loan signing if he can regain the form he was showing pre-injury.
Goals look to be an issue though – 36-year-old Peter Crouch was their top scorer last season with 10. And while the likes of Saido Berahino, Shaqiri and the returning Bojan have talent, their ability to produce on a regular basis remains in doubt.
Ross Barkley will miss out as he recovers from a minor groin operation. James McCarthy is doubtful with a knee problem while Aaron Lennon has a knock.
Seamus Coleman, Yannick Bolasie and Ramiro Funes Mori remain long-term absentees.
Jordan Pickford, Michael Keane, Davy Klaassen and Sandro Ramirez are likely to make their Premier League debuts for the Toffees. Wayne Rooney is also expected to start - his first league appearance in an Everton shirt since May 2004.
Projected starting XI
We took an in-depth look at Koeman’s lineup and tactical options yesterday.
Pickford, Baines, Williams, Keane, Holgate, Schneiderlin, Gueye, Sandro, Rooney, Klaassen, Mirallas.
The final word
With a daunting set of fixtures to come Everton have take something on the opening day. Otherwise the prospect of heading into September near the foot of the division is a very real one.
Given their home record last season and their summer spending to date, it’s a match Everton should be taking all three points from.
Certainly if they want to challenge the top six then this has to marked down as a must win.
I’m hopeful – dare I say cautiously optimistic – that the Toffees will claim all three points on Saturday.