After the stellar season Everton had in 2013-14, fans were excited to see manager Roberto Martinez pit his wits against European competition. Though the Blues had missed out on UEFA Champions League qualification, they played in the UEFA Europa League. The prize for winning the continent's second tier competition was a place in the coveted the Champions League, a carrot that dangled enticingly in front of the Toffees as their domestic form went from bad to worse during the not-so-festive holiday season. However that too was to be cruelly snatched away on a truly awful night in Kiev as the team imploded to lose their last chance of silverware in March.
It all started in September. A 5th place finish in the Premier League ensured that the Blues skipped the possible pitfalls of playing qualifiers early on in the season and went straight to the group phase. Drawn in Group H, the Blues were also pooled with German Bundesliga 5th placed side VfL Wolfsburg, Krasnodar (5th in the Russian Premier League) and French side Lille OSC who had lost out in the Champions League playoffs after finishing third in Ligue 1 the previous year.
Everton hammered Wolfsburg 4-1 at Goodison to start off their campaign with a bang. The scoreline did not reflect the balance of play on the pitch, but the home side were opportunistic enough and potted their chances to head to the top of the group early. A challenging trip to Russia followed, but the Blues came away with a point in a 1-1 draw with veteran Samuel Eto'o showing his European pedigree. Next the Toffees went over the Channel to take on Lille, with supporters clashes leading up to the game stealing all the headlines. The final score was a drab 0-0, but enough to keep Everton at the top of Group H at the halfway mark.
Lille visited Goodison Park in early November for a sound spanking, Everton winning 3-0 and shrugging aside their indifferent form in the domestic league in the process. Still in pole position ahead of Wolfsburg by a point, Everton then traveled to Germany in a game that would decide Group H. Another opportunistic performance for the Blues saw them win 2-0 despite being dominated by the luckless home side, clinching the group win and a coveted seeding in the draw for the knockout round. In the last group fixture, a largely reserve side lost 1-0 at home to Krasnodar in a dead rubber game made more memorable by a group of Russian fans who made an epic road trip to watch their team.
Everton went into the draw for the Round of 32 as a seeded side, and got a relatively easy ride with their next opponents. Swiss side BSC Young Boys had finished behing Napoli in Group I after ending up 3rd in their domestic league the previous season. The Blues played the first leg in Bern in February after a truly hideous couple of months in the Premier League when they looked more like relegation contenders than anything else. Everton quite enjoyed the artificial turf, beating the home side 4-1 in one of their more complete performances of the season. The return leg proved to be no challenge either, as a further 3-1 hiding cemented the Blues claim as one of the favorites for the Europa after the 7-2 aggregate win.
Next up in the Round of 16 for Everton was Dynamo Kiev - the Ukrainian side had won the domestic cup, topped a soft Group J and beaten French side Guingamp narrowly on their way. The first leg at Goodison was a tight affair with the home side starting poorly but finishing strong to come back from behind to win 2-1. The away goal conceded meant that Everton would have to get on the scoresheet in the return leg, while keeping a tight ship in the back. Martinez's side managed to do exactly one of those two things away at Kiev, capitulating 5-2 in what was truly one of the worst defensive performances by Everton for decades.
In what has been a lackluster season for Everton, it was almost inevitable that their poor domestic form would eventually catch up with them in Europe. The manner of their exit from the Europa League will sting for a while, but critics will note that the Blues had ridden their luck at times and were fortunate to have gotten as far as they did.
Another point to be noted - the Toffees squad depth showed that Martinez and his boys were ill-prepared to handle the rigors of European play and domestic football. One of the biggest criticisms (and weaknesses) of the David Moyes era was that despite all the analytics and fancy statistical work he did, he always used the same pool of 15-16 players throughout the season and once fatigue and injuries had taken their toll, Everton would fizz out of relevance. Despite the purchases and loans Martinez made in the off-season and the transfer window, long term injuries and sheer stubbornness resulted in an even direr finish to the season for Everton as they sunk to the bottom half of the table.
Much has been made of the 'Thursday football hangover' that afflicts teams that play in the Europa League. Tottenham have been victims of this in the past and this year Everton succumbed to it too. Four wins, two draws and four losses was their take from games following Europa tilts, with the wins coming against relegated Queens Park Rangers (twice) and Burnley, and almost-relegated Newcastle.
Moyes had had a difficult sophomore season at Goodison too, and this proved to be the same for Martinez. The upcoming offseason will be one that makes or breaks the Spaniard's tenure at Everton. The English sides have caught on to his strategies by pressing high and choking the midfield. The manager will have to spend the summer coming up with some different game plans and then purchasing more quality players that will fit his system for Everton to have any chance of playing in Europe again in 2016-17.