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Everton v Southampton - Match Preview | Simmering tensions as the Benitez era begins

A good start is essential if the new boss is to silence his doubters

Everton v Southampton - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Here we go again.

Yep, the Toffees are back. And, after 17-long months, so are the fans.

Ok, we have had three games with a restricted capacity, but this is the first time since early March 2020 that Goodison Park will be packed to the rafters.

Everton FC v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images

It should be a joyous occasion, and I’m sure when the siren goes and Z-Cars kicks in it will be. But scratch below the surface and there is an underlying tension after a difficult summer that has exacerbated the team’s problems rather than help them.

Let’s start with the manager. As divisive an appointment as you can imagine. Plenty are willing to give him a chance, others simply won’t accept him, some are indifferent. And therein lies the problem: cracks in the fanbase have been widened by this appointment. We should be rallying behind the new manager, instead we are bickering amongst ourselves.

The lack of transfer activity is also cause for concern. The austerity days of the David Moyes era look to be back, with just £1.7m spent so far on three players. The team has needed a new right-back for more than three years yet Seamus Coleman will once again begin the campaign as first choice, with Denzel Dumfries the latest target to slip out of their grasp.

The lavish spending of recent years has finally caught up with the club and sales are needed in order to comply with the Premier League’s profit and sustainability rules. But in this Covid era team finances are shot across the board, bar the handful of super clubs.

Moise Kean looks to be the most saleable asset, but wanting to sell a player and finding a buyer are two completely different things. Then there is James Rodriguez. The club’s most talented player by a distance but with a questionable fitness record and huge wages. Rafa Benitez reportedly wants rid, but with no willing buyers so far he isn’t going anywhere.

It’s a toxic and potent mix that could explode at anytime. This poll by The Athletic sums it up best.

This is not how Evertonians should be feeling at this stage of the season.

What will help massively is results. Get off to a good start and those tensions will ease, giving the club a bit of breathing space in the final weeks of the transfer window.

Pandemic football in cavernous empty stadiums was grim; an economic necessity and a lifeline for those locked down in their own homes.

But being away from the club has added to the disconnect many supporters are currently feeling. Being back at Goodison – or even watching the full crowd on TV – should help.

We are in desperate need of an early goal on Saturday in more ways than one.

Fall behind however, and I suspect the players may start longing for those empty stadiums again.

The opposition

It has not been the easiest of summer’s for Southampton either. They lost their top scorer Danny Ings to Aston Villa earlier this month, while key defender Jannik Vestergaard is on his way to Leicester.

Southampton Unveil New Signing Adam Armstrong Photo by Matt Watson/Southampton FC via Getty Images

They will hope the capture of Adam Armstrong from Blackburn (above) and loan signing of Armando Broja will help plug the gap left by Ings. Theo Walcott also completed a free transfer move back to the club after his loan spell there from the Toffees last season. Full-back Romain Perraud cost nearly £10m from Stade Brest, while Tino Livramento and Dynel Simeu arrived from Chelsea’s academy.

Influential midfielder James Ward-Prowse also remains, though anything could happen in the final few weeks of the window.

The Saints began the year with a memorable 1-0 win over Liverpool but then lost eight out their next nine games, including a 9-0 thrashing at Manchester United. They then won just four of their last 12 games to slump to a 15th-place finish.

They will hope the summer break and a chance to reset is enough to arrest the slide.

Team news

Everton Training Session Photo by Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images

Everton will have Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison available for the season opener, Calvert-Lewin missed last week’s friendly defeat at Manchester United with a foot injury, while Richarlison only returned from Olympic duty with Brazil in midweek.

Benitez says five players are out because of Covid isolation regulations. James Rodriguez is definitely one of those players, Moise Kean and Andre Gomes are also suspected to be among them, though we don’t know for sure.

Previous meeting

Everton 1-0 Southampton, March 1, 2021

Everton v Southampton - Premier League Photo by Peter Byrne - Pool/Getty Images

Richarlison’s early strike was enough to seal all three points for the Toffees, though they had Jordan Pickford to thank for a couple of impressive late saves to seal the win that briefly raised hopes of European qualification.

What they said?

Rafael Benitez First Press Conference at Everton Photo by Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images

Everton boss Rafael Benitez: “It’s very good for everyone. The fans are back after one year of not being able to watch their team, and for the manager it’s the same, you can see the players and fans and feel the atmosphere. Really good for everyone involved in the game.

“It’s always important to win at the beginning and at the end. For us it’s a great opportunity to be in front of our fans. The transfer window is still open and this is something we managers all complain about, but it is like it is and hopefully we can enjoy three points at home.”

Southampton Training Session Photo by Matt Watson/Southampton FC via Getty Images

Southampton boss Ralph Hasenhuttl: “We have definitely got a good balance of experience and young lads who want to work hard.

“The most important thing is that we are willing to learn, willing to work and willing to run on the pitch and show up in the league games.

“Getting more balanced and defensively better organised was another big goal for pre-season, and the new players to work and tell them about our philosophy was also important.

“We’re in good shape physically and it’s important for us to have a first stress-test if you like, and hopefully get a good result immediately.

“It’s ages ago since Southampton won their first game in the Premier League, so it’s time to turn the tables around.”

Final word

It’s always important to get a season off to a good start, but for Everton you feel it is vital.

I have no doubt that the fans will get behind the team once the game starts. However, the frustration from the events of the summer could spill over if they fall behind, especially as this is a game they should be winning if they want to challenge for the European spots this season.

Win and we will have something to rally around. Lose and it could get toxic.