Everton will look to make It two wins out of two when they head across the Pennines to take on Leeds United at Elland Road on Saturday.
Last weekend’s comeback victory against Southampton eased some of the frustration that had been building among the fanbase, who are less than enthused with the managerial appointment and lack of transfer activity.
However, Rafael Benitez’s warm reception before kick-off at Goodison allayed fears he was going to be jeered and suggests he will be given a chance (though that may change if results turn). The way his tactical tinkering helped to inspire the team in the second half will also bank him some valuable credit.
There was certainly a feeling of ‘here we go again’ when Michael Keane’s brainfart gifted the Saints the opener, but the Toffees were superb in the second half and came away deserved winners.
The scenes of jubilation after each of the three goals, particularly the second and third, was a reminder of what we have all been missing over the last 17 months.
Pandemic football was a soulless necessity. Football was only ever truly ‘back’ when the fans were also present again in big numbers. And with work finally under way at Bramley Moore Dock it was a timely reminder to cherish every moment we have left at the Grand Old Lady.
A feisty welcome is guaranteed at Elland Road on Saturday as Leeds host their first Premier League game at full capacity for 17 years.
Like Goodison, Leeds’ home can act as a 12th man at times, though even without that advantage Marcelo Bielsa’s side had a hugely impressive season back in the top flight last time out, even pipping Everton to ninth place on the final day of the season.
They began this campaign with an absolute trouncing at Old Trafford, though I doubt they will be the first team so suffer such a fate and Bielsa’s all-or-nothing approach means they can often be on the wrong side of such results.
They will likely be a different proposition on home turf and represent a tough early challenge on the road for Benitez’s side.
Like many teams the Whites have been relatively quiet in the transfer window so far. Junior Firpo arrived from Barcelona, Jack Harrison made his loan from Manchester City permanent, while Norway Under-21 goalkeeper Kristoffer Klaesson joined from Valerenga.
Youngsters Sean McGurk, Lewis Bate and Amari Miller also signed on, though they will likely feature for the U23s to start.
Elland Road is traditionally a graveyard for Everton teams, with the Toffees famously going 51 years without a league win in West Yorkshire. However, they head there on Saturday unbeaten in their last three league encounters (albeit spread of 19 years), including last season’s battling 2-1 victory in February.
Leeds 1-2 Everton February 3, 2021
Everton moved up to sixth in the table with a hard-fought win at Elland Road on a chilly February evening. Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Gylfi Sigurdsson put the Toffees 2-0 up at half-time, with Raphinha’s goal after the break not enough for the Whites.
Benitez says Moise Kean is the only player who missed last weekend’s win over Southampton because of Covid isolation who is likely to return against Leeds.
That means James (who already confirmed he wasn’t playing on Twitch), Ben Godfrey, Andre Gomes and Jean-Philippe Gbamin are set to miss out, despite the latter being pictured in training.
What they said
Leeds boss Marcelo Bielsa: “What has made him [Benitez] successful is he puts together a very compact team, difficult to beat and he always manages to get the maximum out of the players he manages.
“There hasn’t been big changes in regards to the players, the players are basically the same ones as last season.
“The challenges that I expect are the ones I mentioned about Benitez, they’re strong efficient and hard to beat.
Everton manager Rafael Benitez: “[Marcelo] Bielsa’s teams are very intense and they work hard and run a lot and we’ll have to manage that to make sure we can match their intensity and try to play well at the same time.
“His teams are very intense, he analyses the game every day - it depends on the players you have at the end though whether you can put the plans in place. He’s doing a great job at Leeds so it will be an interesting challenge for me too.”
Like last week, any team playing at home in front of a capacity crowd for the first time in 17 months will have a huge advantage. That is particularly so for Leeds, who have yet to play in front of a full Elland Road since their Premier League return. As a result, the ground will be absolutely bouncing and the challenge for Everton will be to silence the crowd before trying to overcome the opposition.
Last week’s thrashing at Old Trafford highlighted their vulnerabilities, but they can be just as devastating going forward as well, particularly if they get off to a good start.
Any sort of result here would be a job well done.