It was just a year ago that Manchester United left Goodison Park in a state of despair. A 2-0 victory for Everton confirmed that the first season since the departure of legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson would end without even Champions League qualification. It was a particularly chastening evening for David Moyes, who watched on as Everton played in a joyous fashion rarely seen during his 11-year tenure, while his new club toiled aimlessly. Two days later the Scot was fired and England’s most successful club went back to the drawing board.

But that decision has been largely vindicated in the 12 months since, especially in the last few weeks. On Sunday Manchester United will return to Goodison with the gloom that engulfed the club replaced by a real sense of optimism. Under Louis van Gaal, they now sit third in the Premier League table and, despite a defeat to Chelsea last week, are closing in on securing a keenly desired return to the Champions League next season.

After struggling along, getting results without impressing, United clicked into gear last month, playing with a fluidity not only not seen under Moyes, but that arguably wasn’t even present for much of the last few seasons under Ferguson. A key sign of the improvement engineered by Van Gaal has been the transformation of former Everton midfielder Marouane Fellaini from £27.5 million misfit to a player so influential that Jose Mourinho elected to man-mark him at Stamford Bridge. With the squad set to be strengthened again this summer, there is anticipation that United will next season return to battling at the sharp end of both the Premier League and Champions League.

But for the time being they still have to ensure they make it back to Europe’s premier event. Fifth-placed Liverpool are eight points adrift with a game in hand, while Manchester City, in fourth, are just a point behind. With only the top three gain an automatic place in the Champions League group phase, and the fourth-placed side going into a playoff, every point could yet be vital.

On Sunday United will once again have to try and pick up points with a squad hit hard by injuries. While Van Gaal talked up his side’s performance after defeat to Chelsea, the absence of Michael Carrick, Daley Blind, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo was keenly felt. And Van Gaal has revealed that only one, Blind, has even a chance of returning against Everton. Better news comes from Jonny Evans being available again after serving a six-match ban for a spitting incident involving Newcastle United’s Papiss Cisse. Robin van Persie is also back in contention, but Van Gaal has suggested that he will not throw his fellow Dutchman straight back into the first team after two months out.

“He has to train very hard, play in the second team,” he said in his pre-match press conference, reports Sky Sports. “He has to show his qualities again. Then I have to compare him with the positions he can play, with the players that play in that position -- it is always the same.”

For Everton it has been less than smooth progress since the heady days of that win over Manchester United 12 months ago. Back then a place in the Champions League was still as possibility, and they still finished a highly respectable fifth in the table. But the demands brought on by the Europa League this season has proved too much and Everton find themselves down in a disappointing 12th position.

It is no surprise that the clubs’ league form has improved since the end of their European excursions, and they have taken 13 points from their last five matches to alleviate any lingering fear of a relegation battle. And Martínez believes Everton can move back up the table next season and overcome the gulf in financial muscle to the Premier League’s elite.                     

“We have two options, one is to look at the finances and where we are in that league and achieve that but nothing higher,” he said, according to the Liverpool Echo. “The other is to be creative and find a way to reflect what is in our DNA at the football club and work really, really hard to find a way to challenge with the best projects in the league and the best budgets in the league.

“That is what we have been doing in the last two years. You are going to get real highs and real lows but you need to see yourself developing and progressing and one day we will be able to reap the rewards.”

Martínez is hoping to have midfielders James McCarthy and Leon Osman back available, but expects to be without South African Steven Pienaar.

Kickoff time: 8:30 a.m. EDT

TV channel: NBCSN

Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra