The Everton Preview
So, it's back.
For most of us it couldn't come soon enough, especially as we only started playing our best football last season in the final two fixtures, blowing West Brom to smithereens at Carrow Road and putting the dethroned champions of England --Manchester City-- to the sword on their own patch.
In both of those fixtures we were in full pomp; Ruddy was back between the sticks, we defended like lions, ran the show in midfield and even Grant Holt was back on the goal trail after his most frustrating season to date. Jonny Howson had the shackles taken off and scored not one, but TWO contenders for goal of the season in back to back games.
The summer transfer dealings have been like no other in the club's history for a variety of reasons. We've spent more cash than ever before, but we've also waved goodbye to our club captain, star man and, lets face it, our biggest hero since Hucks. This previewer still feels that Holt had something to offer us this season, but that's another story for another column. That ship has now sailed, and Holty deserves all the best wishes he's gotten.
And what's more, he'll be playing in Europe AND he'll get a crack at Ipswich and Leeds this term, giving us a chance to live vicariously through him as our old foes are conquered. It's the closest we'll come to playing either of them for a while.
Ricky Van Wolfswinkel and Gary Hooper have big shoes to fill, but their records speak for themselves. In many respects, they're very similar to the type of signing Paul Lambert would usually make during his time with us; young players without Premier League experience who have a hunger and desire to come and prove themselves at the top level. Only instead of recruiting from the Football League, our new financial power has allowed us to look abroad to strengthen on the home front.
Even with some of the foreign recruits arriving, Hughton seems keen to keep a British core of the team, and the likes of Russell Martin in particular still have an important role to play in the club's development, something which we should all rejoice.
Having both Sebastien Bassong and Russell Martin take over captaincy duties was unexpected, yet very encouraging. Martin has long been a staple of the side while Bassong has made us considerably stronger at the back since his arrival last year (his contribution is masked slightly by our lack of goals up front and the odd hammering from the likes of Liverpool).
Though we'll forever be optimistic, the truth is that a top 6 finish or thereabouts is practically impossible for now. The top 3 will almost certainly consist of Chelsea, Man City and Man United (not necessarily in that order) with Spurs and Arsenal duelling over 4th again. But Liverpool will mount a strong challenge for the European spots this season too. So as you can see, top 6 would surely be too much.
Whilst we've strengthened considerably, so too have many other clubs. Strengthening our own squad is a yearly necessity just to even keep pace with other teams. But what encourages me the most is that we've shown real ambition with the signings we've made and that we've been regularly pipping other clubs to get our players.
But with all of the above in mind, here are some targets I think we could aim for in 2013/14.
Last season we attained 44 points. This season, we should aim for the 50-point mark. That's more than enough to finish in the top ten. Even something like 48 or 49 points would likely do the job. But rather than aiming for the traditional 40 for survival, we should aim for more to be totally comfortable.
Related to the above, we finished 11th, beating our previous season's placing of 12th. This year, we should hope to at least match one of those or finish 10th.
Last season only found the net 41 times in the league. This will almost certainly go up, but a minimum of something like 50 would be nice.
We conceded 58 league goals, which was still better than the season before (66). This year, we should better that total.
We kept 10 clean sheets in the league last term, compared to just 3 the season before. Great progress, matching that would be great.
Don't get knocked out of cup competitions by lower league opposition. The giant killers have had their fun with us, thank you very much. I don't mind how we do in the cups, just don't get embarrassed by anyone outside of the top flight (or the Football League, for that matter!)
Last one: Last season in the 12 games we won, we only recorded one victory with more than a one-goal margin (4-0 vs West Brom). For the sake of my heart strings, a couple more victories by less slender margins would be great.
And that's about it. Cup runs would be a lovely bonus, and a trip to Wembley is something I think we'd all adore. But that's almost a random process depending on the draws, a bit of luck and player availability.
Other than that, I just wish the players good health and good fortune for the season ahead.
Enough rambling. There's a game on, you know.
Leroy Fer is suspended for the opener, something he's carried over from his time at FC Twente in Holland's Eredivise.
Bassong and Turner are in fitness battles. Turner is expected to be available but Bassong is probably not going to be ready. He played in an academy game earlier in the week but may need more time.
Gary Hooper took a nasty knock on his shin last weekend in the friendly with Panathinaikos but he's avoided long term injury according to scans, and he might feature depending on further assessment.
Everton will be without Tony Hibbert, new signing Antolin Alcaraz and Magaye Gueye.
Marouane Fellaini was a doubt initially because of his knee, but he played for Belgium in mid-week and appears to be fine (great!).
Kone, who followed Roberto Martinez from Wigan, is expected to start.
Last time we met
Norwich 2-1 Everton
(Kamara '84, Holt '90) (Osman '39)
Everton took the lead but Norwich equalised through a Kei Kamara header before Grant Holt netted an injury time winner.
After City's ten game unbeaten stretch in the autumn, a loss at West Brom saw them go on a nine game run without a win. With Osman's opener not long before half-time, it looked like that would continue. But City persevered and were rewarded for their gallant nature with Kamara's first (and only) goal since he started his loan move from Kansas City in the MLS, before Holt popped up with the late winner, bundling the ball home from close range to leave David Moyes pretty red faced, as his Blues side cocked up the chance to get closer to the Champions League spots.
It wasn't pretty, but it was a much needed respite for the Canaries after a string of poor results in recent times.
While Kei Kamara's spell with us wasn't the most fruitful, his goal was the first ever scored by a player hailing from Sierra Leone, and according to the BBC that made it 88 different nations that could claim one of their own had scored a goal at that level.
Form guide (Not taking pre-season into account, because it just doesn't mean anything!)
Norwich last 5: WLLWW
3 wins and two defeats for Norwich in their final five games of last season, with the win at West Brom confirming survival and the win away to Manchester City giving them an 11th placed finish.
Everton last 5: LWDWL
Two wins, two defeats and a draw, though they did have a tough run in as David Moyes was nearing the end of his time in charge. They lost 2-1 to Chelsea in their last game of last season.
Head to head stat
In the last five Carrow Road meetings, City have only lost once to the Blues. Since City returned to the top flight in 2011 they're unbeaten against Everton in general since that time.
What's in store this time around?
Here's another stat: Norwich haven't won an opening day fixture since 2002 in what is now the Championship, where Grimsby Town were the unfortunate visitors to fortress Carrow Road. With the quality of opposition arriving this weekend, I dare say that might continue if we don't play our cards right.
Roberto Martinez will take charge of his new side for the first time in a competitive game, but there's pressure on him right from the word go to succeed someone who brought Everton out of the dark ages. Moyes may be at United, but his shadow might loom over the Merseyside outfit for a little while yet. Everything Martinez does will be compared and contrasted to his predecessor.
But what's undeniable is Everton's sheer quality on their day. Keeping hold of Fellani and Leighton Baines in itself is something of a transfer coup, and they're easily two of the best players in the league. If he can keep them happy and keep them on board, the Blues will always be a force. But the likes of Jagielka, Howard and co can't be ignored either, and his new recruits like Kone will be just as keen to impress in their new surroundings.
I'd like to see similar attacking intent to the likes we saw against West Brom and City at the end of last term. We'll need it if we're going to have a chance against them, even if that risks things being less tight at the back. But we already know the defence can work well together, so why not focus on giving the likes of Van Wolfswinkel some really good service and lets see what he's made of? The sooner he can learn the ropes and life at this level, the better. Ditto Hooper if he's fit enough. I'm confident enough in the back line to be solid enough over the course of the 38 games not to worry about them leaking goals initially, if that's what it takes.
I don't do score previews, but our record at home against Everton in recent years isn't so bad, so at least a point should be up for grabs here.
Welcome back, football.