After a narrow but ultimately comfortable 2-0 aggregate win over Ruzomberok, Croatian side Hajduk Split now stand in the way of Everton and a place in the Europa League group stages for the first time since 2014/15.
Everton’s earliest ever start to a season went some way to explain the rusty nature of their two performances against their Slovakian opponents, even if their place in the next round was rarely threatened over both legs.
The Toffees weren’t at their fluent best against Stoke on Saturday either but did just enough to secure another victory.
Three wins, three goals and no goals conceded represents a fine start even if they weren’t always easy on the eye.
But with each passing game the excuse of lack of match fitness wears thin. The players should be approaching something close to full speed – and if you look at the fixture list, they have to.
Thursday’s game represents the start of crucial fortnight that could shape the direction of the season.
As well as the two games against Split, Everton have to travel to the Etihad and Stamford Bridge, while at least two more new signings need to be completed before the August 31 deadline to ensure the squad has enough depth and quality for the season ahead.
Croatian side Hajduk Split will be a significant upgrade in opposition compared to Ruzomberok when they arrive at Goodison on Thursday.
Split qualified for Europe by finishing third in their domestic league, well behind champions Rijeka and Dinamo Zagreb.
They began their existence in the old Yugoslav leagues before joining the Croatian Football League following the county’s independence in 1991.
They remain one of the region’s most successful clubs, winning nine Yugoslav and six Croatian league championships, as well as nine Yugoslav and five Croatian cup titles – the last of which came in 2013.
Their most successful era came in the 1970s and 80s, where they also reached four European quarter-finals and two semi-finals.
They also reached the last eight of the Champions League in 1994 but have struggled since, regularly failing to make it past the qualifying rounds.
Like many eastern European clubs they simply do not have the finance to compete with the major western leagues, hampering their attempts to make an impact outside their domestic game.
To that end Everton should be more than good enough to make it through, though qualifying wins against Levski Sofia and Brondby suggest Split are no mugs and need to be taken seriously.
Hadjuk Split fans.— Footy Away Days (@FootyAwayDays_) August 4, 2017
Everton will face them in the Europa league. pic.twitter.com/5vqXlu8cra
They are also currently second in their Croatian League table with just one defeat from their opening five games this season - against fierce rivals Dinamo Zagreb.
Then there are their supporters and the infamous Torcida ultras group. They are renowned for their loud, passionate and sometimes violent support, which should make for an intimidating atmosphere in next week’s second leg.
Everton need to secure a decent lead at Goodison in order to avoid an uncomfortable trip to Croatia.
New signing Gylfi Sigurdsson will not be considered for Thursday’s game due to lack of match fitness.
Sandro Ramirez is doubtful with a heel injury suffered during Saturday’s win over Stoke.
James McCarthy is definitely out with a minor knee problem while Ross Barkley has a hamstring injury.
Hajduk Split will be without key striker Marko Futacs, who is out until next year with a knee injury.
Predicted starting XI
Our detailed look at Koeman’s possible starting XI is here:
Pickford, Baines, Williams, Keane, Martina, Gueye, Schneiderlin, Klaassen, Mirallas, Calvert-Lewin, Rooney.
Like in the previous round, the end result of this tie is more important than the performance.
After fighting hard to qualify for Europe in the first place, failing to make the group stages would be a huge disappointment.
Ronald Koeman has recent experience of that when his Southampton side lost 2-1 on aggregate to Danish champions FC Midtjylland in 2015.
We would much prefer to have the home leg second but at least by playing at Goodison first the players have the opportunity to take a grip of this tie before their journey east next week.