That Way Redemption Lies

2014-15 has largely been a season of frustration but Everton's form in the Europa League has shone like a beacon in the gloom. Can their return to Continental competition reignite a fire that could power them all the way to Warsaw?

As Everton sputtered to a lethargic start in the Premier League, exited the League Cup in the meekest manner imaginable but then achieved ignition in impressive fashion in Europe, it felt very early on in the season like almost all of Roberto Martinez's eggs were placed in a Europa League-sized basket.

The Blues' agonising defeat in the FA Cup Third Round the first time time in the club's history that Everton have been dumped out of both domestic cups at the first hurdle and their effective elimination from contention for the Premier League's European places by New Year's Day has only served to reinforce that notion. The Europa League is Roberto Martinez's last shot at redeeming an otherwise forgettable season, one which has seen his status among supporters turn dramatically from one of reverence to scepticism and criticism. Second-season syndrome in full effect...

The next leg in what we all hope will be a redemptive journey that ends in Warsaw begins on Thursday evening as Everton travel to the Swiss capital of Bern to take on BSC Young Boys in the round of 32. Seeded in the draw, having qualified as winners of Group H, the Toffees were landed with what many regarded as a favourable draw, particularly when you take into account some of the more daunting opponents they could have been paired with.

The resumption of the European campaign offers another opportunity for the re-emergence of an Everton we have seen precious little of since qualification for the next phase was secured in late November. Where they have been stifled, tentative and fearful in the Premier League, Martinez's side have been dynamic and dangerous against Continental opposition, looking more akin to the outfit that was so thrilling in the Catalan's first season in charge in what have tended to be more open contests in the Europa League.

Advertisement

Given that Everton have won just twice in any competition since they beat Wolfsburg on 27th November, a trip to the second-placed team in the Bundesliga now would turn many an Evertonian face ashen. And yet, we comfortably beat the German side home and away and demolished Lille at home in what was, alongside the win over Aston Villa in the League, arguably the best team performance of the season.

The team's two Belgian stars have struggled on the domestic front to reach the heights to which we supporters know they can, but Romelu Lukaku was excellent against the French side and Kevin Mirallas scored in both games against Wolfsburg he was injured for three European games in between. That bodes well for the remainder of the competition.

So, too, does the confidence a commodity in short supply over the past couple of months emanating from the camp that the Blues could go all the way to the Europa League final. Martinez has quietly hinted at it and in the past week both captain Phil Jagielka and Leon Osman have voiced their belief that Everton have a good enough team to win it.

They have already shown that, on their day, they can match or beat anyone and if a first meaningful European fixture for almost three months is what brings back that enterprising Everton that comprehensively beat the two teams most likely to prevent them from getting out of the group stage, then the two legs against Young Boys promise to be exciting.

Finally, if nothing else, the West Ham tie in the FA Cup demonstrated the spirit that exists in the team when the chips are down. Again, there is a feeling that the 2014-15 season has to a certain degree revolved around this European run and if that sentiment, coupled perhaps with a sense of destiny or purpose, is one shared by the players, they won't want to let go of the European dream without giving it their all.

Martinez has not been able to time a wholesale revival in his team's League fortunes with the resumption of the Europa League campaign but the return of John Stones has unquestionably eased the glaring defensive fragility that contributed significantly to that awful period of form from early December to the turn of the year. Just two goals conceded in five League games is testament to just how important the 20 year-old is to Everton's back line and that, combined with the timely return of James McCarthy, will provide a strong backbone.

With that strength at the back, Martinez's men may now be able to finally rediscover the attacking prowess that has deserted them since their European commitments effectively ended in late November. Repeat qualification via the Premier League is not beyond the realms of possibility but it is unlikely. The road to Warsaw and with it redemption remains Everton's best chance of ensuring that they will be playing Continental football next season if they can get everything clicking again starting this Thursday.