Despite winning just 1-0 at home last Thursday, Everton will go out and attack in Slovakia, said Ronald Koeman in his pre-match press conference. The manager knows well the risks of nursing a small lead like that against an MFK Ružomberok that has scored the key goals it has needed in the second legs of the previous two qualifying rounds to get here, and will be keen to see the Blues get an early away goal to calm the nerves.
The match will be the second of a two-leg third qualifying round matchup, with the winner moving into the Europa League playoff round, the final step before securing a place in the group stage of Europe’s secondary competition.
As we saw in the first leg, Ružomberok are a plucky team capable of causing Everton some distress from setpieces, using their physical strengths to make in-roads. The game will be held in the tiny 4,876-capacity Štadión pod Čebraťom in the city of Ružomberok itself.
This is the club’s first appearance in any European competition since 2006-07, when they won the Slovakian double the previous season (the club’s only major silverware since the formation of the Slovak Super Liga in 1993), earning them a spot in the Champions League.
Since reaching the third qualifying round of the Champions League that year, 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.
Late goals in the second leg of the first qualifying round (to beat Serbian club Vojvodina 3-2) and the second qualifying round (to beat SK Brann of Norway 2-1) got them the matchup against Everton.
Composed largely of Slovakian nationals with little significant experience at the international level, the exception is captain Marek Sapara. The 34-year-old midfielder has 38 caps with the Slovak national team but didn’t feature in the first leg. Their best player on the day turned out to be goalkeeper Matus Macik who foiled the Blues on multiple occasions.
Ramiro Funes Mori and Ross Barkley are out after recent surgeries, while Yannick Bolasie and Seamus Coleman are not expected back this calendar year.
Koeman confirmed yesterday that Jordan Pickford would play in goal, and Wayne Rooney is fit again after a minor injury that he has played through the last couple of weeks. Sandro Ramirez sparked the team after he entered with half an hour to go, and can be expected to start as well.
Projected Starting XI
We took an in-depth look at Koeman’s lineup and tactical options yesterday.
We can expect Koeman’s 4-3-3 with the following personnel:
Pickford; Baines, Williams, Keane, Martina; Schneiderlin, Gueye, Klaassen; Mirallas, Rooney, Sandro
The Final Word
Everton should be able to put away the home side comfortably. With another week of training and fitness under their belts, the Blues should look less rusty and and early goal or two in the first half will definitely settle any nerves.
After Koeman’s promise that the team would attack, expect for the Toffees to dominate possession and get through the channels against a Ruzomberok side that will hunker down around Macik’s goal and look to score from a setpiece.