LIVERPOOL, England -- Three quick thoughts from Everton's 1-0 season-opening win over Stoke City in the Premier League:
1. Rooney makes perfect homecoming
All summer long Everton fans have, privately or publicly, harboured their little doubts about Wayne Rooney. Some have never wavered, but for most there has been pointed talk of his "influence in the dressing room" and his "experience at the highest level," those intangible qualities that would surely compensate for his fading powers. But on his second Premier League debut at Goodison Park on Saturday, Rooney showed that he still has something to offer as a player, as much as he does a mentor.
This was a turgid, joyless affair for 44 minutes where chances were rare and any excitement was limited to the occasional crunching tackle. But as the break approached, Everton finally found some space. Sandro slipped the ball out to Dominic Calvert-Lewin and his cross looped dangerously into the penalty area. Rooney's movement was perfect, drifting off the defenders into space. The execution of his header was first class, deftly nodded back across Jack Butland as he raced across to cover. His celebrations were cathartic.
The crowd roared with him, in relief as much as delight. Relief that the deadlock had been broken. Relief that it was they who had broken it. Relief that Rooney, a serviceable, effective Rooney, was back. This was the homecoming they wanted, not the one they feared.
Like everyone else on the pitch, Rooney had struggled to shine in this stalemate. But he had certainly led by example. Stoke won three corners before the break. He headed all of them away. He tussled defiantly with former teammate Darren Fletcher, mostly coming off second-best, save for a nasty-looking early foul he inflicted on the Scot in the opening exchanges. It was gritty, bruising fare, but he was not found wanting.
Moved out onto the right after the break to support Calvert-Lewin, Rooney slowed and became increasingly florid, but no less committed. The pace has diminished, the stamina is draining and the touch isn't always what it was, but perhaps he still has more to offer than his critics (including this one) first thought.
2. Room for improvement for new-look Blues
Everton supporters haven't been this excited about a new campaign for a long time. It has been just over 30 years since this club last won the title and while few would suggest that such a thing is on the cards now, it is at least plausible that it might be at some point in the future. They have money and they have spent it well. They have a new stadium coming that will rival Anfield. But on the evidence of this game, and their two European fixtures, it will be some time before their potential is realised.
With five new signings on the pitch, one coming off the bench and two different formations either side of half-time, it's not hard to see why progress has been slow. Manager Ronald Koeman is still searching for the perfect shape with which to showcase his players and in these very early stages, the players are still learning how to play with each other. But that will change in time and there are clear signs of progress.
Jordan Pickford's easy confidence and safe handling brought reassurance to any supporters who worried about the wisdom of signing a former Sunderland player, and his injury-time save from Xherdan Shaqiri was outstanding. Michael Keane seemed entirely unruffled by his big-money move, dictating the play from the right side of a back three and then comfortably marshalling Saido Berahino in a back four.
In the middle, last season's signings Morgan Schneiderlin and, in particular, Idrissa Gueye, constitute one of the more formidable midfield pairings in the league. And then, of course, there is Rooney.
But more than that, there is a communal buoyancy at Goodison now. Under David Moyes, Everton could defend brilliantly and often sneak a win. Under Roberto Martinez, Everton could devastate others with their attack and themselves with their defence. Under Koeman, for the first time in decades, there is team developing here that can either take a game by the throat or quietly shut it down. There's a long way to go yet, but it's going to be fascinating to see how they develop.
3. Hughes under a cloud
After three vaguely encouraging years at Stoke and then a distinctly substandard one, Mark Hughes has been earmarked by many pundits as the manager with the most to fear from the opening months of the season. Today's performance did not improve his survival hopes. A late strike from Shaqiri was palmed away by Pickford, but that was one of few genuine chances.
Playing for much of the game with a well-protected back three that frequently became a well-protected back five, Stoke neutralised Everton for all but one rather pivotal moment of the first half and never really recovered in the second. New signing Fletcher was excellent and Everton permitted very little space, but Berahino was starved of service and cut a forlorn figure as the game progressed. He was eventually replaced by Peter Crouch.
Stoke remain organised and diligent, but Hughes may need to add one or two players with less prosaic qualities before this transfer window closes. Otherwise, he may be out of a job by the time the next one opens.