Another year, another disappointing exit from the League Cup for Everton. Fans hoping for a change in fortunes under Roberto Martinez, after a decade of poor performances in the tournament under David Moyes, were disappointed on Tuesday night as the Blues suffered a defeat to Fulham at Craven Cottage.
It had all started so well too. Using the Cup as an opportunity to switch things up tactically, Martinez lined up in the 3-4-3 formation that was last employed against Stevenage in the previous round. Eight changes were made from the side that started against West Ham at the weekend, the most notable being the introductions of Gerard Deulofeu, Romelu Lukaku, James McCarthy, and a first start of the season for Darron Gibson; however Everton initially showed no signs of having to adjust, and began the game at a ferocious pace.
The front three of Lukaku, Deulofeu and Steven Naismith all looked dangerous in the opening minutes, and the Scotsman had already tested David Stockdale on a couple of occasions before he opened the scoring in the 12th minute. Deulofeu glided in from the right, and dinked a perfect ball through to Naismith, who fired his shot through the legs of the onrushing Fulham keeper.
Everton's loan signings combined excellently for the remainder of the first period, with Lukaku's hold up play a significant asset and Deulofeu's pace causing major problems for Fulham's John Arne Riise. The Barcelona winger led a number of promising counter-attacks, both through the middle and on the right, and was unlucky to see a well-struck effort fly just past the far post around the half hour mark.
The hosts grew into the game as time wore on though, and McCarthy and the returning Gibson struggled to control a midfield overrun with tireless workers in Scott Parker, Giorgos Karagounis and Pajtim Kasami. Dimitar Berbatov, returning from injury, was also a menace - quiet in the first half but prowling with sullen intent in front of the Everton penalty area.
There were warnings of a Fulham fight-back before half time, but after the break, Everton's play continued to stagnate as the home side became more and more bold in their attacks. Alexander Kacaniklic went close with an effort that flashed across Joel Robles' goal, and soon after Berbatov capitalised on a piece of good fortune to put his side level. A pass into Adel Taarabt was intercepted by Seamus Coleman, but the loose ball fell straight to Berbatov, and the Bulgarian slid his finish past Robles with characteristic calm.
The turnaround was completed when substitute Darren Bent, only on the pitch for three minutes, drove in an equaliser following a quickly-taken free kick by Karagounis. The striker's shot was hit with power, but Robles made a real mess of it, allowing the ball to pass straight through his hands.
The remainder of the game was a more open affair, as Everton rediscovered some of their urgency to press for an equaliser, but Bent and Berbatov remained dangerous on the break. Gareth Barry and Phil Jagielka were brought on to attempt to wrest back control of the midfield, and Kevin Mirallas replaced the again-disappointing Naismith late on, but by then it was too little, too late.
The Toffees did have one final opportunity in stoppage time, as low cross found Coleman with the goal at his mercy from six yards out. But in typical fashion, the Irishman's shot was angled just enough to allow the superb Stockdale to make a lunging save with his legs. A fitting, though no less exasperating end to what was a frustrating night in East London.