Gylfi Sigurdsson rescued Everton with a stunning 50 yard strike after Josip Radosevic had given Hajduk Split the lead in similarly stunning fashion. Everton’s draw this evening means they will be in the draw tomorrow for the Europa League group stage.
It was just the second time in Split’s last 10 home European games that they have failed to win and it was Everton’s first draw in 11 European fixtures.
The home side started with energy and a good tempo with a raucous capacity crowd behind them. They looked a different prospect to the side who visited Goodison last week playing with pace and running at the Everton defence.
They should have had a penalty on five minutes as front man Ante Erceg had a lobbed ball played through for him and was brought down as he rounded Jordan Pickford however the offside flag was raised to spare the young keeper’s blushes. Replays later showed Erceg was just level with the last defender.
Other than that there was a lot of huffing and puffing but no real end product from the hosts who worked hard throughout the first period. Everton never tested Split number 1 Dante Stipica with Wayne Rooney squandering a header after a brilliant Cuco Martina cross and Sigurdsson lashed a volley just wide of the mark in what was the Blues best attempt in the first period. Everton were too static and failed to really unlock the home defence, with Dominic Calvert-Lewin the only player causing them a headache on the left side.
As half time neared Split forced the first save from either keeper in the match. Nikola Vlasic lofted a tantalising ball into the Everton area which Ahmed Said attempted to acrobatically divert home. He missed and the ball dropped for the dangerous Erceg who took one touch and side footed the ball goal bound, but Pickford got down well to thwart him. But Pickford would be helpless to prevent the Croatians taking the lead just minutes later in stunning fashion. Split were continuing to apply the pressure and central midfielder Josip Radosevic found a gap and unleashed a fire cracker of a shot which flew into the net before Pickford knew anything about. It was a blow to Everton but also a wakeup call after a lacklustre first half performance.
With just a couple of seconds gone in the 2nd half Gylfi Sigurdsson announced himself on the Everton scene, in some style. The Iceman spun his marker and, from all of 50 yards, lofted the ball over the flailing Stipica. A quite astonishing way to open your Everton account and also pretty much secure progression into the group stage.
That goal knocked the stuffing out of the Split who now needed 3 unanswered goals to qualify. They had a lot of the ball but were unable to carve any openings as Everton were happy to sit in and frustrate with their away goal buffer. Radosevic was hoping lightning would strike twice as he tried his luck from range once more but his effort whistled just past the post.
With 25 minutes left Split were handed a route back in to the game as Ashley Williams clumsily felled Erceg in the penalty area. Radosevic slid a ball into the box for the striker who went to turn but was clattered by Williams. Said stepped up to take it and give the home side a lifeline, but Everton’s hero once again, was dressed in pink as Pickford guessed correctly and denied Split a second goal. With each game the young stopper endears himself to the Everton faithful with crucial stops and sensational distribution. The Premier League top six, barring Liverpool, all have goalkeepers you would say win them 10+ points per season and it finally feels like Everton may have their game saving number 1.
Said rather foolishly attempted to pump up the crowd shortly after his penalty miss. He certainly got a reaction from the near 30,000 home fans but it was more aggressive than encouraging. Everton had a couple of good counter attacks to win the game with Rooney and DCL both getting one on one with Stipica, but on both occasions they produced tired looking finishes allowing the more than capable goalkeeper to thwart them.
So it was Sigurdsson to the rescue for the Blues this evening, with things looking quite bleak at half time. Split were certainly the better side in the first period and deserved the lead. The fans were bouncing and they had the bit between their teeth, fortunately for Everton the half time whistle managed to halt their momentum. The Sigurdsson goal was crucial, not just with its timing right after the break to completely sink the spirits of the energetic home side, but also the fact it gave us the breathing room to then be able to sit back and see out the game.
A positive result in the end then as Everton have done what was asked of them and overcome both sides they faced in qualifying. All involved can sit down tomorrow at midday UK time and hope for a favourable draw in the group stage as our Europa League journey now really begins.