Five Things We Learned: Hajduk Split

by Paul McNamara @Everton

It was the sort of night that demonstrated precisely why every Premier League club should crave European football.

Hajduk Split’s Stadion Poljud was rocking to the racket generated by the Croatian team’s partisan supporters for the best part of an hour before kick-off.

Even with a two-goal lead from the first-leg, Everton knew they still had a real job on their hands. And thanks to a glorious goal from Gylfi Sigurdsson and a resilient team display, the Blues accomplished it.

Here we dissect five talking points from an absorbing evening’s action in Split… 

Sigurdsson, Gylfi Sigurdsson

Evertonians took to Gyfli Sigurdsson from the moment he walked in the door. Why wouldn’t you?

The Icelander is a sublime footballer, a wonderful striker of the ball, hard grafter – and he desperately wants to play for Everton.

Sigurdsson has a penchant for the spectacular, too. And he didn’t stand on ceremony before showcasing that particular side of his personality in the royal blue jersey.

There aren’t many players who, in the position Sigurdsson found himself 12 seconds after the restart in Split, would have hit upon the idea of having a pop at goal.

Fewer still who would really have fancied their chances of pulling off such an audacious trick.

You can’t really blame Hajduk ‘keeper Dante Stipica for not expecting what happened next when Sigurdsson swooped onto a loose ball, 45 yards from goal and in a relative outpost on the right touchline.

But this was when the Club’s record buy showed exactly why he holds that status, with a first-time shot that had the astonished Stipica frantically backtracking in an ultimately futile effort to keep the ball out of his net.

That was the game’s headline moment – but there was plenty more to like about Sigurdsson’s performance, as he mixed his quick, clever passing and movement with the chasing and harrying Ronald Koeman expects from his men as standard.

He lasted the full 90 minutes, too, as if to ensure no boxes were left unticked. 

Jordan’s spot on

Jordan Pickford could easily have been distracted by the urgently-convened meeting held by five Hajduk Split players to determine the team’s penalty taker on the night.

He could have fallen into the trap of mentally switching off as well, after Sigurdsson’s outrageous strike had left the hosts needing three goals to topple their English visitors.

Given the extent to which managers and players sweat the small stuff these days, it is also fair to assume Pickford would have known Ahmed Said – the barrel-chested forward who emerged from the ad hoc five-man discussion with the ball under his arm – had scored a hat-trick at the weekend.

A player high on confidence, then.

So is Pickford as it happens. He didn’t stop any of the four penalties he faced for Sunderland last season but the 23-year-old was completely in control of this situation.

He made the goal look small for Said, whose confidence visibly dwindled a touch between arguing his case for penalty duties and putting the ball on the spot.

Pickford read Said’s intention and leapt to his right to keep out the striker’s effort.

He had actually made an even better stop in the first half, demonstrating terrific reactions and agility to get down to his left and apply a strong hand to Ante Erceg’s close-range shot.

Factor in Pickford’s customary command of his box and this was a display to further enhance the goalkeeper’s soaring reputation.

On the day he was called up to the England squad, too.

Mighty Mo

Muhamed Besic could have been forgiven for easing himself into this one. It was his first competitive start since 30 April, 2016, after all.

Rather than dip his toe in the water following his recovery from a serious knee injury, though, Besic jumped straight in at the deep end, head first.

He had an attempt at goal inside 60 seconds and never looked back.

Besic was absolutely integral to Everton’s efforts to keep Hajduk at bay, as the Croats predictably went on the offensive from the first whistle.

He employed the nose for danger that is a product of spending his formative years operating at centre-half to pop up all over the place and cut off a string of Hajduk attacks at source.

You imagine Besic would be an absolute horror to play against, with his snappy tackles, boundless energy and unwavering spirit.

His use of the ball warrants mention, too. Besic’s economical passing helped the Blues hog 59 per cent of possession. When the heat of battle had cooled late on and the 24-year-old had time to lift his head, he measured a terrific ball over Hajduk’s rearguard and into the path of the raiding Wayne Rooney.

With the impeccable Gareth Barry now departed and Morgan Schneiderlin ruled out of Sunday’s trip to Chelsea, Besic couldn’t have chosen a more opportune moment for his return.

It is good to have him back.

Spirit in adversity

We know all about the perils of juggling Thursday night Europa League football with the intense demands endlessly presented by the Premier League.

Indeed, ‘Sunday-Thursday’ has entered the English game’s lexicon as shorthand for the supposed downside of being involved in this competition.

When Everton were asked to try Monday-Thursday on for size, then, we were entering uncharted territory. 

Manchester City away from home was nobody’s idea of an easy start to the week, so it was little surprise the Blues found themselves embroiled in a titanic confrontation at the Etihad Stadium.

Seventy-two hours later and Koeman’s team was back at it, tasked with quelling a vibrant Hajduk Split and, in turn, shushing the home side’s phenomenally vocal support.

A goal down at half-time, this could have very quickly got away from the Blues. But it is in such situations you find out what a group of players are made of.

It is one thing to boast of a great team spirit when things are going swimmingly. Another matter altogether for that bond to remain strong when you’re jammed behind the eight ball.

Everton could have easily pointed to a host of mitigating circumstances if this one had got away from them.

They chose an alternative route, however, one that involved getting their head down and seeing the job through.

Phil Jagielka had spoken beforehand of the “good characters” in the Blues’ dressing room being an invaluable resource when it comes to this type of examination.

The skipper’s words proved rather prescient.

Anticipation

Friday lunchtime’s group stage draw only served to further emphasise the appetising flavour Europa League involvement adds to a campaign.

Evertonians have already travelled in numbers to Slovakia and Croatia. And now those supporters can eagerly anticipate watching the Blues in France, Cyprus and the footballing stronghold of Italy.

For the players as well, it is a fresh challenge away from the Premier League and a precious opportunity to slip into a rhythm of playing regular football.

Sigurdsson was raving after the final whistle in Split about the prospect of games coming thick and fast, with its knock-on effect of less time spent on the training ground.

And manager Koeman talked of these encounters in foreign environments, against opponents adopting a variety of tactics, having a positive impact on the development and learning of his younger troops – namely Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Ademola Lookman and Tom Davies in Split.

Everton have bought into the Europa League and this admirable approach has already started to pay dividends.

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