Everton must find three points against Lyon or lose all remaining optimism
Everton's quest for an ever-elusive turning point brings Lyon and Europa League football to Goodison Park on Thursday night. Even discounting domestic struggles for a moment, three points seem vital to prevent this European venture from ending before it has properly begun.
The visit of Lyon is also important in the wider context of returning to winning ways after failing to beat any of Apollon Limassol, Burnley or Brighton in the last three matches over all competitions. The visit of Arsenal on Sunday and a trip to Leicester are the next league fixtures with a visit to Chelsea in the Carabao Cup separating those matches.
After navigating the qualifying rounds unbeaten, and with three clean sheets in four matches, a tricky but exciting group draw had supporters dreaming of European trips and progress into the latter stages of the competition. Fast forward to October and the halfway mark of the group stage sees Everton battling to ensure their Europa League involvement extends beyond December.
No English team has fared worse than the solitary point gained from the first two group games. The performance in losing 3-0 to Atalanta ranks among the worst in recent memory, while there was something so typically Everton about the late equaliser conceded in the 2-2 draw against 10-man Apollon Limassol in the second group match.
Everton cannot afford to remain at the bottom of the Group E standings much longer. Anything less than three points on Thursday and hopes of progress fade rapidly with the two of the last three group games away from home.
Therefore, the pressure is on for these back-to-back European games against Lyon.
Thursday is the first ever meeting between the two teams and the two share similarities in having both lost their top scorer in the summer. Yet while there is a Romelu Lukaku-shaped hole in the Toffees' attack, the French side are adjusting better without Alexandre Lacazette in these opening months.
Lyon enter this match on the back of a late, morale-boosting 3-2 win against Monaco and free from the goalscoring issues hampering Everton, scoring three or more in five of their nine Ligue 1 games this season. Expect the visitors to be confident against an Everton defence without a Premier League clean sheet since the opening day and five goals conceded in their first two Europa League group games.
However, the similarities between the two teams also extend to defence with Lyon shipping goals in a manner reminiscent of Everton's struggles. The visitors will arrive at Goodison without a clean sheet in their last seven matches in all competitions.
Muster some belated cohesion and threat in attack and Everton may finally buck their recent trend for conceding first in matches. For that to happen though, manager Ronald Koeman has to adjust his approach and explore different options. Tom Davies has been one of the more dynamic players in recent weeks but only entered the fray at Brighton in the 90th minute. Ademola Lookman, Kevin Mirallas and Aaron Lennon, three players capable of injecting pace and width, have seen 34 minutes of Premier League football between them. Lookman accounts for none of those 34 minutes.
Despite showing the most promise in the lone striker position, Dominic Calvert-Lewin has spent too many matches out of position or out of the team. Koeman also continues to avoid the No. 10 quandary, opting to use Wayne Rooney as the striker with Gylfi Sigurdsson behind him against Brighton. The main issue is not where the two play; it is that the two seem unable to be effective in the same team.
Koeman praised the commitment of his team after both the Burnley defeat and the draw at Brighton. In truth, though, it felt like a manager desperately searching for some respite, praising commitment -- the minimum expected at any level in this game -- because there is precious little to cling to at present.
Supporters bought into this vision of a bright new Everton after a mostly encouraging first season and seventh-place finish under Koeman. Even allowing for any of the various mitigating factors offered up by those attached to the first team, Koeman should be doing so much more with these players.
While much of the vote of confidence directed toward Koeman from majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri prior to the international break missed its mark with supporters, there was one point that resonated: Moshiri stated that the fans deserve better. Koeman and his players need to start repaying that faith, starting with an important Europa League tie on Thursday.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.