To listen to Rafa Benitez you wouldn’t think that Everton were facing any adversity early on in his home debut. Senior defender Michael Keane’s gaffe on the ball had allowed a high-pressing Southampton side to edge ahead in the first half and no one was quite sure where any Everton goals would come from.
The manager made a couple of tweaks at the break without bringing on any new subs and immediately the Blues looked more solid in the back and more aggressive upfront. The equalizer came moments after the resumption of the second half and Goodison Park was immediately revived.
By the time the second half substitution of Alex Iwobi for Andros Townsend helped create the second and third goals en route to a 3-1 win, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Blues had no cares in the world again.
Speaking after the game, Benitez credited the players and the supporters in the stands for the win.
“It is is nothing to do with me, it is more about the players and the fans. After so many months without fans the players appreciate the support of the fans and the fans appreciate the commitment of the players.
“They (fans) know the manager I am, I like to fight and compete: I did it today and I will do it all my time here. I am someone who likes to do their job properly and likes to win. I was nervous when I was coming here with other teams but not with my team. I am delighted to be here and see the reaction of the fans.
“It was an opportunity to show what we can do, what I can do, but especially what the players can do on the pitch with the fans behind them. We have to be competitive and the reaction we had after conceding a goal is something I have to be pleased about as manager.”
On the changes he made at the break, Benitez again praised his players for understanding what was required of them and the home support which had been sorely lacking last season due to the pandemic.
“We changed the position of the two centre-backs and changed the position of Richarlison and Demarai Gray. It meant we could link up better and were a threat in wide areas. We were stronger in defence.
“Plus the support of the fans who were pushing the players who then played with the character and intensity we were looking for in the first-half.”
There had been concerns about Richarlison’s fitness after he played in both the Copa America and the Olympic Games over the summer and came right into the starting XI with no respite.
“Playing Richarlison wasn’t a gamble – he was fine. We gave him one day to rest and made sure he was OK. He scored, so everyone’s happy.”
Benitez acknowledged that there was still room for improvement, having said at his pre-match press conference that the Blues would be looking to strengthen their squad, likely at the end of the transfer window which closes on August 31st. He praised his side’s fighting spirit and how they came back in the second half.
“The reception from the fans was great and the support for the players was great. The goal in the second-half meant a lot to everyone and the fans were behind the team.
“The players were working really hard and I am happy with the reaction, happy with how they approached the game in general and especially in the second-half when the confidence was on show.
“Every ball, the way we were fighting, this is what the fans are expecting. Crosses, shots and counter-attacks. There were lots of positives. It is the first game of the season, we can’t forget about that.”