Everton started off the season with a welcome three points, winning a close game 1-0 against Stoke City.
The game started slowly with both teams seemingly sizing the opposition up and no one wanting to make the first move. The opening ten minutes were uneventful as both teams seemed to be shaking off the pre-season mentality
The first half was one of few chances, with neither side having a genuine clear cut opening before Rooney’s goal. Everton looked off the pace and were lacking ideas and innovation in the final third. Michael Keane was solid at the back as he looked to defuse danger before it developed and Leighton Baines and Dominic Calvert-Lewin worked hard on the flanks, to little avail.
Joe Allen and Xherdan Shaqiri were bright sparks for Stoke as Allen played in a few neat through balls and Shaqiri tormented and teased in his free roaming role. But the visitors failed to create anything of note, having a corner cleared with ease, Mame Birame-Diouf wasting a half chance and Bojan getting in behind on the left flank but shanking what looked like a cross into the Gwladys Street. The Potters seemed happy to just frustrate proceedings and dishearten the home players and fans and they did this successfully until the stroke of half time.
As Keane strolled out from the back he found Idrissa Gueye in space, the Senegalese drove forward and played a smart one two with Rooney and then played it into Sandro Ramirez who found Calvert-Lewin out wide. The young striker, who was playing in the unfamiliar right wing back berth, delivered a cross a seasoned wide defender would be proud of right into the path of Wayne Rooney who powered his header past Jack Butland and into the same Park End net that announced his arrival on the Premier League scene fifteen years ago. This goal pulled Rooney level with Frank Lampard and Alan Shearer on the most opening day goals with eight.
Stoke emerged from half time a lot brighter than they were in the first period but it was Everton who had the first real opening. Cuco Martina had come on to replace Ashley Williams at the break allowing Calvert-Lewin to move to a more comfortable attacking position. As a Stoke attack broke down, Rooney delightfully slipped through the 20 year old who found himself one on one with Stoke goalkeeper Jack Butland. He looked certain to score but as he went to pull the trigger loanee defender Kurt Zouma got across to make a crucial block.
Everton were beginning to grow into the game and the goal had obviously relaxed them and allowed them to play some really nice football. With Calvert-Lewin now partnering Sandro Ramirez up top, this allowed Rooney to drop into the number 10 role and play some sublime passes into his teammates. Baines knew only too well this was the case as he made an ambitious run on the left flank with Rooney finding him with a superb ball, Baines cut it back for Klaassen but the Dutchman panicked and lofted the ball comfortably into Butland’s arms.
Allen was a real live wire for The Potters and his persistence lead to Stoke’s first near miss of the second period, scrambling the ball into the path of Darren Fletcher who whistled an effort just wide of Jordan Pickford’s goal. Although Stoke were behind it was Everton who continued to dominate proceedings. Martina’s defensive skills may still be under question but there is no doubt he can deliver a dangerous cross, doing so on several occasions from that right flank.
Unfortunately for him Everton’s lack of a target man meant his attacking efforts went mostly unrewarded. Calvert-Lewin was really impressive in his more central attacking role in the second half, picking the pocket of Zouma and then minutes later Geoff Cameron. On the first occasion the youngster decided to go for goal and Butland saved comfortably from a tight angle. On the second occasion however he looked up and found Rooney in the box. Rooney lofted it to Sandro in space at the far post but the ball was just too high for the Spaniard and he failed to either shoot or lay it off for a teammate, again Everton’s lack of height up front proving a concern.
With 20 minutes left Mark Hughes showed Everton the impact a target man can make as Peter Crouch entered the fray, alongside new signing Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting. With Stoke desperate to draw level Allen wisely floated a high ball into the area for Crouch. The giant striker managed to set it up for Diouf who attempted an ambitious overhead kick which then fell into the path of Crouch but he was offside.
The Evertonians were rightly concerned with Crouch’s presence, with the veteran target man being involved in 10 goals against Everton in his Premier League career, but it was his fellow substitute Choupo-Moting who made the bigger impact for the visiting side. He ran at the Blues defence and his unusually bulky stature for a wide midfielder coupled with his pace caused real problems for the back line. He crossed into a congested area, the ball fell for Idrissa Gueye who should have cleared his lines but instead sliced his clearance right back into the danger area, however Everton’s young goalkeeping ace Pickford came out positively to win the ball in traffic.
Everton started sitting back in their trademark style with five minutes to go, inviting pressure from Stoke who had started to approach the game in a more direct and physical manner, no surprises there. Again Choupo-Moting was involved as he brilliantly beat Schneiderlin on the left flank and won his side a corner with normal time all but up. The corner was whipped in to a dangerous area but Michael Keane, who was absolutely faultless throughout, cleared away.
With three of the four additional minutes up, there was time for one last opportunity for the visitors to snatch a point. Choupo-Moting again drove forward giving it to Shaqiri who burst into space 30 yards out and smashed an absolute cracker destined for top right corner. Pickford, however, had other ideas as he leapt to tip the fierce strike wide. The fact he had been relatively unchallenged all game made the stop even more impressive as he maintained his focus right up until the last moments and produced a truly stunning save. If he continues to make match saving stops like that then his price tag will look more and more like a bargain as the season goes on.
So it was unconvincing and at times uncomfortable but it was certainly crucial. With a tough schedule to come over the opening weeks of the season the result today was one of significant importance. Stoke are a solid side at the back and will always make life difficult for you but Everton battled hard against the physicality of the visitors and came out on top in what was a really good team effort from all involved.
Special mention today to Michael Keane, I thought he was absolutely outstanding. He reads the game magnificently and is a proactive centre back, looking to snuff out danger before it materialises. He is comfortable on the ball and a titan in the air. Stoke threw the kitchen sink at Michael Keane today and he headed it right back at them and for that he gets my Man of the Match.