A Long-Awaited Return to Europe

Four-and-a-half years on from Everton's last match in European competition, the Toffees are back in the Europa League. Whatever happens, players and fans alike should make the most of it.

Four years, six months and 24 days on from one of the most inept performances of David Moyes' 11-year reign, Everton finally make their return to Europe when Wolfsburg visit Goodison Park on September 18.

It was way back in February 2010 that the Blues last faced a side from the Continent in a competitive game, going down without a fight in the last 32 of the Europa League against Sporting Lisbon.

Almost half a decade on and not many would've foreseen that the 3-0 drubbing suffered at the feet of the Portuguese giants would be the club's last foray into Europe for such a lengthy period, particularly given Moyes' tendency to finish inside the Premier League's top seven.

Even coming sixth in 2013 the Scot's final season on Merseyside wasn't enough to secure a trio of trips abroad for Evertonians after Swansea and Wigan, the latter managed by a certain Roberto Martinez, triumphed in the FA Cup and Capital One Cup finals at Wembley.


But whatever the reasons for the Toffees' prolonged absence from UEFA's hollow plastic balls, a return to Europe albeit not in the competition we had all hoped for is more than welcome under a manager who has brought plenty of Spanish style to L4.

Where some Premier League sides dread entering the elongated Europa League with its qualifying rounds, Thursday night fixtures and lengthy knockout stage, there is little doubt that those associated with the club at every level will embrace it. Even the jaunt to far-flung Russia.

Although the 4,770 mile round trip to Krasnodar will test even the most staunch of fans, the first conversation I overheard when visiting St Luke's church before the Chelsea game centred on an elaborate plan to travel to the game via Amsterdam and Moscow. It'll be awkward and expensive but Martinez and his men will still be well supported in their first away fixture.

It won't quite be on the same level as Wolfsburg and Lille though, with both games certain to entice thousands of Blues across the Channel with the promise of all-day drinking, plenty of laughs and, more likely than not, 180 minutes of pretty decent football.

And it's the matches themselves, rather than cheap French and German beer, which should get tongues wagging. We couldn't have been handed a much tougher draw Wolfsburg sporting director Klaus Allofs even claimed Group H resembled something you'd see in the Champions League but wouldn't you rather face some of Europe's best than FC Neverheardofthem?

In Wolfsburg we'll face a side who won the Bundesliga title in 2009 and finished fifth last season, missing out on a Champions League play-off spot by just a single point. In Brazilian international Luis Gustavo, former Chelsea man Kevin de Bruyne and rumoured Toffees transfer targets Ivan Perisic and Joshua Guilavogui, manager Dieter Hecking boasts one of, if not the, best midfield line-ups in the competition.

And as for Lille, they finished behind just big-spending Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco in Ligue 1 last season but missed out on a place in the Champions League after a 3-0 aggregate defeat to Porto last month. Rene Girard's squad contains less household names than our German opponents but they're likely be tougher to break down with Vincent Enyeama, Simon Kjaer and Co having conceded just 26 league goals last season. Divock Origi, who signed for them lot across the park this summer and was immediately loaned back, will also be keen to make an impression.

Despite our rocky start to the Premier League season there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about adding at least six extra games to what is already a demanding schedule.

Progression to the knockout stages, unlike 2007-08 and 2009-10, is far from assured. In fact, even getting out of Group H will represent a fairly substantial achievement for Martinez and his players, particularly given this will be the boss' first European campaign as either a player or a manager.

But despite our rocky start to the Premier League season there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about adding at least six extra games to what is already a demanding schedule. And perhaps the most exciting of those is to see how the team's possession-heavy brand of football and possibly a new formation fare against sides not from these shores.

Martinez's influence on the way we play has been evident since the first game of last season, but can his continental some might even describe it as Barcelona-lite style work against sides who are more accustomed to facing opponents who love to keep hold of the ball and build from the back? Only time will tell, although we as fans should relish the opportunity to watch our team reprise the School of Science against two teams who have won their respective league titles in the last five years. Oh, and FC Krasnodar too.

The extra games will also give our Catalan chief the chance to test out the 3-5-2 system he preferred during his time at the DW Stadium and which we've seen glimpses of in pre-season and the utterly forgivable defeat to Manchester City at the end of last season. John Stones needs playing time to develop and the Europa League, if Martinez continues to opt for experience in the top-flight, should give the 20-year-old much-needed opportunities.

Some were left unhappy with the size of the squad when transfer deadline day came and went without any late night activity at Finch Farm, but we can still boast at least two good options in every position and only have Ross Barkley fingers crossed as a long-term absentee through injury. Utilising the squad to deal with the Sunday-Thursday routine will test Martinez's managerial nous, although I for one cannot wait to see the likes of Darron Gibson, Bryan Oviedo and Muhamed Besic being given the chance to show what they're capable of.

Remaining competitive in every game will be our the biggest challenge, especially if we're able to put together a run in either, or both of, the domestic cups. But the next step for Everton must be to make it into the Champions League, which means replicating, or probably improving upon, last season's results. Fortunately there's now another route to joining Real Madrid and the rest of Europe's elite in 2015-16.

In a move designed to stop clubs fielding youngsters and second choice players, victory at the national stadium in Warsaw on May 27 next year will grant the winners of the Europa League entry into the big time. It might be 15 matches away but who's to say we can't go one better than Fulham did in 2010? Turn Goodison back into the fortress it was for much of last season and you just never know.

Whatever happens between now and our last group game on December 11, the key is to grasp each Europa League moment. The unknown opponents, home games under the floodlights, foreign lager (Chang included), the desperate hunt for tickets and cheap flights, slightly more acceptable half-and-half scarves, exploring new cities, eating bratwurst, bouncing away ends at Goodison and more foreign lager.

We battled for 38 games to get back into Europe. Make the most of it.