Everton must exorcise opening day demons
Fresh off an impressive, expectation-defying first season, Roberto Martinez is primed for another crack at Champions League qualification in 2014-15, having fallen narrowly short in his debut season as Everton manager. The sight of Antolin Alcaraz planting a header into his own net against Southampton still makes for painful viewing.
Establishing Goodison Park as a fortress was a key factor in the Blues' impressive assault on the European places last term, with 13 home wins and 38 home goals signalling new club records in the Premier League, while 42 home points matched the previous best set the season before.
Needing to maintain those impressive figures in the upcoming campaign, it is on the road, starting with Leicester on Saturday, where Everton must improve. For a side averaging exactly two goals a game on home turf, a return of 23 in 19 matches away from Goodison is a marked contrast. Still, what is the permanent signing of Romelu Lukaku for, if not to help his new employers score the necessary extra goals?
Looking to improve away form -- at least in terms of goals scored, if nothing else -- there is comfort in the knowledge that the defence is one area that performed admirably on its travels in 2013-14, conceding just 20.
Only Chelsea (16) boasted a meaner defence away from home last season, which is especially impressive as seven of Everton's total came at just two grounds: the Etihad and Anfield. However infrequent they may be, eradicating the kind of implosion witnessed at Anfield is on the to-do list, along with removing the fear that grips the players when playing across Stanley Park.
Maintaining that sharpness at the back, the Blues need a quick start this season. This time last season, with key players not arriving until deadline day, the Toffees crawled out of the starting blocks, opening with three successive draws, not returning three points until the visit of Chelsea in September.
With Chelsea following Arsenal as the first two visitors to Goodison this time around -- though Everton won both fixtures last season, both are eminently losable -- three opening day points are imperative to ensure this campaign begins on the front foot.
That in itself is no easy task, though, with Everton travelling to last season's Championship champions, Leicester. Buoyed by a raucous home crowd, Nigel Pearson's side will surely be on the visitors from first whistle to last. It is a well-worn cliché, but there is definitely something different about the promoted sides in the early stages of the season. The magnitude of the task ahead has not yet hit; they simply go for the jugular.
Therefore, it is up to Martinez and his players, with the greatest respect to the opposition, to ensure the extra quality in the visiting ranks wins through. The midfield duo of Gareth Barry and James McCarthy, so key to this possession-based style, must impose themselves on the match as early as possible.
Exacting control and maintaining possession in their customary fashion is not all the Everton players must do, however. They must also exorcise their own opening day demons. Since this money-spinning circus began back in 1992, those in royal blue can reflect on just six wins from 22 Premier League curtain raisers.
The victory over Manchester United two seasons ago is the only opening day success in the past seven years. And, keeping Saturday's opposition firmly in mind, the defeat to newly promoted QPR in August 2011 should ensure nothing is taken for granted on Saturday.