By Paddy Boyland
Everton will play Lyon, Atalanta and Apollon Limassol in the Europa League group stage following Friday’s draw in Monaco.
The Blues, who booked their place in the ‘first-round proper’ of the competition with a 3-1 aggregate win over Hajduk Split, face a comparatively tough pool against their rivals from France, Italy and Cyprus but should still be confident of progressing into the knockout round nevertheless.
Here’s the lowdown on Everton’s Europa League opponents.
? | Here’s how our 2017/18 @EuropaLeague Group E looks like…
— Everton (@Everton) August 25, 2017
Last years semi-finalists, Lyon, are the top seeds in Group E in light of a series of strong performances in both the Champions League and the Europa League over the past decade.
The Ligue 1 outfit boast a number of talented individuals in Nabil Fekir and Clément Grenier, but did lose star man Alexandre Lacazette to Arsenal during the close season. Bertrand Traoré and ex-Real Madrid forward Mariano Diaz have since been brought in to compensate for the French international’s loss, yet it remains to be seen if the pair will be able to fully match Lacazette’s goal return from last time around.
Homegrown star Fekir is the creative hub of a side that is notably better on the front foot than with their backs against the wall. Indeed, a recent 3-3 draw at home to Bordeaux showcased a soft centre that Koeman and Co will no doubt be looking to exploit.
Other notable figures include former Manchester United fringe players Rafael and Memphis Depay. The former provides attacking thrust from right-back in a typical 4-2-3-1, while Depay joins Fekir and Traoré in a well-balanced attacking midfield trident. It should be noted that the trio work better with space in which to run into, and will thus be a clear danger on the counter-attack when they come to Goodison Park.
Elsewhere, promising midfielder Corentin Tolisso departed for Bayern Munich in a big-money move, leaving the technically sound Sergi Darder to dictate play from a deeper role. Despite being placed in different pots for the draw, there appears little to separate Lyon and Everton on paper. Other top seeds such as AC Milan and Zenit would arguably have offered a more challenging obstacle for various sporting and logistical reasons.
Games are played at the impressive Stade de Lyon- a new-build that holds just under 60,000 and will host this year’s final. In terms of the city itself, Lyon has a reputation for being the gastronomic capital of France and lies on the picturesque river Rhone.
Third seeds Atalanta enjoyed a superb 2016-17 campaign that saw them finish ahead of more illustrious names Inter, Lazio and AC Milan to qualify for the Europa League.
Coached by the wily Gian Piero Gasperini, the Bergamo side will, however, almost certainly fail to replicate their 4th-placed finished in Serie A this season after seeing most of their best players picked apart by Italy’s traditional powerhouses. The process started with Roberto Gagliardini’s move to Inter in January, with Frack Kessié and Andrea Conti then adding insult to injury by switching to AC Milan this summer. It means that Atalanta have significantly weakened since their exploits of last campaign.
La Dea did, though, keep hold of top scorer Papu Gomez and top defensive prospect Mattia Caldara- although the centre-back will move to Juventus at the end of the season. Both are key tenets of Gasperini’s usual 3-4-1-2 system. 23-year-old Caldara offers a notable presence in both penalty boxes having scored seven goals in 2016-17, while Gomez and his strike partner Andrea Petagna are a hard-working combination not short of a clinical edge.
Summer incomings included Cardiff flop Andreas Cornelius, ex-Fiorentina playmaker Josip Ilicic and former Middlesbrough midfielder Marten de Roon.
Atalanta normally play their home games at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia (capacity 21,000) in the stunning walled city of Bergamo, although there has been talk of switching venue to the Mapei Stadium in Reggio Emilia.
Everton’s final opponents, Apollon Limassol, reached the group stage thanks to victories over Aberdeen and FC Midtjylland.
Nicknamed Theos (meaning God), the Cypriots finished third in their domestic league last season behind APOEL and AEK Larnac, and will find themselves as fourth favourites to progress through to the next round of the competition.
After qualifying for the Europa League in 2013-14, Apollon recorded a famous victory over Nice before recording a 0-0 draw against Lazio in Nicosia. The following season, a 4-1 away win away at Lokomotiv Moscow saw them progress through to the group stage in a shock result.
Apollon possess a multi-national squad from a wide range of countries around the world. There is a sizeable South American contingent at the club, with Spanish, Scottish, Portuguese and Croatian players also among their ranks.
They were charged by UEFA with improper conduct during the recent tie against Aberdeen, with their fans also found guilty of setting off fireworks and throwing objects.
Sofronis Avgousti’s side play at the Tsirion Stadium, which has a capacity of 13,300.