With our Europa League campaign getting under way in just a few days time it’s probably as good a time as any to take a look at the sizeable challenge we are up against between now and the new year. This preview will scrutinise the strengths and weaknesses of our three Group H rivals Wolfsburg, Lille and FC Krasnodar and zoom in on how I think we will fare against each side.
Dieter Hecking’s Wolfsburg arguably represent the biggest threat to our ambitions of winning the group, and the German’s are first up at Goodison this week in a potentially high scoring match-up. The Germans have finished 8th, 15th, 8th,11th and 5th in the past five seasons since their sole Bundesliga title in 2009, achieved during the Dzeko-Grafite vintage.
They have deservedly earned a reputation of being the German side who entertain more than any other in the last 18 months, probably due to the fact that they are as ruthless going forward as they are error prone at the back. They’ve scored in their last 29 Bundesliga games – a club record – but have failed to keep a clean sheet in 17 matches, stats which are indicative of an extremely gung-ho approach. This is backed up by their data last season; they claimed just 5 clean sheets, amassed the most defensive errors in the league and 50% of their games were either won or lost by 2 clear goals.
In a way they have similarities with ourselves, particularly in the fullback slots with Rodriguez and Jung last season recording more assists than any defenders in the Bundesliga – 16 in total. Left back Rodriguez – who both looks and sounds like an evil drug overlord – also bagged 5 goals and recorded the most accurate crosses (72) in the league, helping Wolfsburg tot up the second most set piece goals in the division.
Between the wing back duo in the centre back slots are talented ball playing defender Knoche and his arl arse overworked sidekick Naldo. Knoche is a two footed centre half who is confident and calm in possession can use either foot. He can overplay, though. Naldo is a right footed Brazilian centre back and is a very good reader of the game, making the most interception (94) in the division last season. Arguably their problem is that three of the four first pick defenders are better on the ball than off it, something which came to a head last season when they conceded 6 in back to back games. The defensive midfield shield in front of them is likely to be Guilavogui and Luis Gustavo, formerly a treble winner with bayern and who recorded three red cards last season – the most in the bundesliga. The 20 year old box to box midfield general Junior Malanda is also highly rated and could get some runs out in the EL.
As you would expect of a side with such an expansive approach they have plenty of options in the forward positions. A lot of the creative burden will rest on ex Chelsea man Kevin De bruyne who will slot in either on the left or centre of the attacking midfield trio and he will look to beat his man and create chances. Summer signing Aaron Hunt will also play in behind the forward, and he has a decent track record with 67 goals and assists in 184 games.
Up front the menacing Ivica Olic is very much the main man. I’ve always liked this cat – he will never shirk putting in a shift, can score and create goals and is a general pain in the arse in dragging centre backs into positions they don’t want to go, a bit like tevez minus the toxic personality. He has won league titles in Russia, Croatia and in Germany and was top scorer for the Wolves last season with 14 goals. They have other goal threats with the likes of 18 year old Max Arnold and penalty box predator Bas Dost. Nicklas Bendtner also arrived in the summer from Arsenal.
Strongest Team: (4-2-3-1) Grun – Jung, Rodriguez, Knoche, Naldo – Gustavo, Guilavogui – Vierinha, De Bruyne, Hunt – Olic
Key Player: Ivica Olic
Bong Prediction: The Wolves will no doubt win many friends with their swashbuckling forward play and brinkmanship at the back. Given our new-found liberalism in defence the games between us and them could be goals galore and I think they will qualify either as winners or runners-up. Neither us or Wolfsburg lose many games at home and I could see us winning at home against them, particularly given Wolfsburg’s iffy start to the season with just 2 points from their first 3 games.
Whereas Lille and Wolfsburg have both won their domestic league in recent years, Krasnodar certainly represent the unknown quantity in the group.
The club are very much a developing force in the Russian league under billionaire owner Sergey Galitsky. The Krasnodar born oligarch has a personal fortune of $8bn from his career in retail, and as well as currently building their new stadium he has pumped truck loads of liquid cash into the academy, with his ‘mission statement’ being to organically grow a fully home based Krasnodar team in the coming years.
Their manager Aleh Konanau has a 61% win rate since taking charge at the start of last season, which is significantly better than his two predecessors. He has experience as a player in Russia and Belarus and also worked as a coach in Moldova with title holders Sheriff before becoming a boss in his own right with Ukrainian Premier League club Karpaty Lviv where he impressively qualified for the 2010–11 UEFA Europa League,after knocking out Galatasaray on the way. Their squad has plenty of experience with 5 of their regular starters 30 or over – they even have a 40 year left winger! In keeping with a lot of clubs from Ukraine and Russia nowadays they are flooded with foreign players with 3 of their main attacking threats in Wanderson, Joaozinho and Ari all hailing from Brazil.
Like Lille, they are arguably better at the back then going forward, with 8 clean sheets in their first 13 competitive games of the season. This frugal defence is marshalled by former Wigan man Granqvist and Icelandic Sigurdsson, a solid partnership who were picked up for just short of 8 million euros. Creating this defensive stonewall has probably been the Belarussian’s finest work since taking the helm last summer. When he joined they were known for being easy on the eye but had one of the leakiest rear guards in the league which was swiftly remedied by his acquisition of experienced fullbacks Jedrejczyk and Kaleshin. His subsequent molding of them with the two centre backs has enabled Krasnadar to now have arguably the best backline in the Russian league. I would say that Kaleshin at full back could be a weak link given his age and often rashness in the tackle when challenged with pace.
Despite tightening up at the back their brand of football remains easy on the eye, playing a short passing game and in truth they don’t really have a big grok style forward to play long balls into. They keep it on the deck with more emphasis on creating space in the final third through short passing and intricate movement between the forward four, mostly looking to slide through balls between defenders rather than pumping crosses into the box.
Chief creators of mayhem are 2 of the aforementioned Brazilian’s, Joaozinho and Wanderson, picked up for a combined £1.5m and now worth at least 10 times that figure. Left footed Joaozinho will start on the left of the three attacking mids but will cut in and sometimes play centrally. His final third scheming is crucial – he created the most chances per game in the Russian league last season and has recorded a colossal 23 assists in his last 2 campaigns. His compatriot is the dynamic right footed striker Wanderson who top scored for the club with 9 goals last season. Ari completes the samba forward line-up although he has been more on the periphery this season. Other notable players include the Uruguayan playmaker Pereyra and the trio recruited from Anzhi in the summer; midfielders Ahmedov, Burmistrov and Bystrov.
Strongest Team: (4-2-3-1) Sinistyn, Jedrejczyk, Kaleshin, Sigurdsson, Granqvist – Gazinskiy, Ahmedov – Bystrov, Pereyra, Joaozinho – Wanderson
Key player: Joaozinho
Bong Prediction:Arguably the strongest of all sides from Pot 4, their Brazilian duo have been an attacking force in Russian football for a couple of years now and with the tweaks Konanau has made to the defence they are now capable of going after teams and not getting caught out at the other end. It’ll be tricky but I think we can get a point at their place and then, if needed, we should get the win at Goodison in matchday 6 – but in all honesty I think things will be settled by then.
Lille boss Rene Girard won the French top flight 1 in 2012 as Montpellier boss, pipping money thunderspunkers PSG at the death in one of the closest run title races in french football history. He did so with the best defence in the division, conceding just 34 goals in 38 games and his approach at Lille is along the same lines.
He inherited the defensive nucleus of Rudi Garcia’s 2011 title-winning side, albeit stripped of the attacking heavyweights Sow, Hazard, Cabaye and Gervinho. Since the title success Lille have become less of an irresistible force and more that of an immovable object – partly due to financial implications with their arsenal style stadium project and partly due to Girard’s cautious approach.
Last season their keeper Enyeama kept 21 clean sheets which was more than any keeper in the top 5 European leagues as Lille comfortably recorded the best defensive record in the top flight. This defensive frugality has remained this season, conceding just once in their opening five games and their defensive options were also boosted in the close season with the acquisition of highly rated Danish covering centre half Simon Kjaer from group rivals Wolfsburg.
Girard favours a 4-3-1-2 setup, not looking to press much and he will look for his side to control possession as the best form of keeping the opposition at bay. Neither full back is great going forward and this lack of width is probably an area we can look to expose.
Going forward it’d be fair to say that, despite having some great approach play, they struggle for goals They created the 4th most chances last season in their domestic league but were the lowest scorers in the top half of the league and have been further weakened by the defection of top scorer Kalou to Hertha – he got 46% of their goals last season. Libepwel’s new buy Origi (now back at Lille on loan) bagged just six last season and has scored just once in open play this season. This profligacy was exposed in the ECL playoffs recently as they failed to score home and away against a Porto who are not all that.
They have plenty of options in the attacking midfield slots, including the ageing Ben Kingsley lookalike Florent Balmont, a good crosser who polled the most assists for Lille last season. He will be assisted by right footed playmaker Marvin Martin who a few seasons ago claimed 17 assists in just 1 season at Socheaux and who has 15 intl caps to his name. Other notable players include skipper and French International Rio Mavuba, forward Nolan Roux , onloan Man City star Marcos Lopes and the pacy Ryan Mendes.
Strongest Team: (4-3-1-2) Enyeama – Corchia, Beria, Kjaer, Basa – Mavuba, Gueye, Balmont – Martin – Origi, Roux
Key man: Marvin Martin
Prediction: Defensive solidity will be crucial to Lille getting into the next phase of the competition. Their key issue will be whether they can score enough goals to see them turn possession dominance and draws into wins in the tighter games. I could see the double header against them next month being tight affairs with both sides looking to dominate the ball. The game at their place should be a low scoring encounter, probably a draw and I’d back us to shade it at L4 in the return fixture . They are unbeaten in 9 games on the road, though, so it won’t be a given.
7 points from 18 should be enough to get us through and I think our home games alone will take care of that. It’s a tough group though – arguably the toughest of all 10 groups – and if we win it’s unlikely we’ll face anyone as good quality wise in the first knockout rounds.
The bookies certainly fancy us to progress to the next round – the best price currently available for us to qualify is 4/9 with Bet Victor with Bet365 offering our best outright group winner odds at 15/8. If you don’t have much to play with you could pick 4 group winners to widen the odds – for example a fiver stake on us along with Spurs (4/6) Fiorentina (5/6) and Metalist (2/1) will return around £130.
Finally, for the uber optimists amongst you the toffees are currently best priced 28/1 with Coral to lift the trophy!