Ronald Koeman blamed his team for being afraid, the absence of “seven or eight” players after a summer spend of almost £140m, Ashley Williams for another defensive error and Dominic Calvert-Lewin for not converting a gilt-edged chance at the death. Everyone and everything was culpable for a damaging draw at home to Apollon Limassol, it seemed, except the manager who continues to baffle Goodison Park with his team selections. Responsibility, along with the spoils, should have been shared.
One point from two games means Everton have made the worst ever start to a Europa League group campaign by an English team. With Lyon home and away next, they are in danger of a damaging early exit from a competition they worked so hard to reach and Koeman has set as a priority for the season.
Victory was in sight at Goodison after Wayne Rooney had converted a gift from Héctor Yuste and 19-year-old Nikola Vlasic had capped a fine substitute’s display with his debut goal for the club. Then, with two minutes remaining and the Cypriots reduced to 10 men after Valentin Roberge was dismissed for stamping on Calvert-Lewin, Yuste made amends by heading Adrian Sardinero’s free-kick beyond Jordan Pickford.
Koeman was livid and his anger had not subsided by the time he conducted his press conference. “They are afraid of playing,” charged the Everton manager. “They are looking for the safe option.” A lack of confidence was the reason Koeman gave, despite Everton coming into the game on the back of two successive home wins and hosting the lowest-ranked team in their group. His players may also be seeking the safe option because their manager continues to start matches without recognised pace or width in the team.
Only when Vlasic arrived as a second half substitute for Idrissa Gueye – “he was one of the players struggling with his ball possession,” explained Koeman – did Everton show the necessary invention and movement required. And still it was not enough. The Everton manager deservedly recognised the contributions made by Tom Davies and Jonjoe Kenny in the comeback win against Bournemouth on Saturday by starting the homegrown talents against the Cypriot Cup holders. Few expected them to form Everton’s right flank, however, with Koeman opting for a 4-4-2 formation that had Davies on one wing, Gylfi Sigurdsson on the other, and three natural wide men on the bench. His current aversion to width and pace continues to produce laboured, unthreatening performances and limit the influence of Sigurdsson, the club’s £45m record signing. Oumar Niasse was absent having been omitted from the European squad list submitted to Uefa on 5 September.
Apollon made the livelier start and went in front following a mistake by Williams, who played a blind pass straight to Anton Maglica on the right wing. The forward swept an inviting cross into the six-yard box for the unmarked Sardinero to convert at close-range, despite Pickford’s best efforts. Williams covered his face with his shirt as he digested a costly error, just as he did in the 4-0 defeat at Manchester United. Koeman reacted by switching Davies out to the left and Sigurdsson inside but the Everton threat level barely increased. There were ironic cheers from the Goodison crowd at one stage when Rooney swept the ball out wide to the overlapping Kenny. And that came after Everton had levelled thanks to a ludicrous gift from the visitors.
Goalkeeper Bruno Vale played a goal-kick out to Yuste who was immediately closed down by the hard-working Sandro Ramírez. The defender panicked and his attempted backpass to Vale sailed wide of the keeper and to the feet of Rooney. His first European goal for Everton was tapped into an empty net from five yards out.
Vlasic, one of the three wide men on the bench, was introduced on the left and enabled Sigurdsson to take up a central midfield role. The pair combined to telling effect to put Everton ahead for the first time in the group stage. Rooney’s attempted pass deflected off into the path of Sigurdsson, who flicked a superb first time ball into the Croatian winger. Vlasic, a £10m signing from Hajduk Split late in the transfer window, burst clear of the Apollon defence and beat Vale with a powerful finish between his legs. Everton had victory in sight but with moments remaining they blew it. Calvert-Lewin should have won it in stoppage time but his header from Vlasic’s cross was too close to Vale.