Playing in their first game since November 21st, Everton faced a tricky opponent in Durham in the Continental Cup. Despite being a Championship side, the Wildcats, who are in fourth in tier two, held the Blues to just four shots on target and only 58% possession.
Durham was always going to sit back and defend, and it took the hosts just over an hour to break the Wildcat’s defense.
“We always knew this game was going to be difficult coming into it,” defender Gabby George said. “Durham give us a tough game every single time. We just needed to turn up, take the points and put ourselves in a good position in the Conti Cup.”
Everton Manager Jean-Luc Vasseur missed the clash after entering the government’s track-and-trace COVID system. In his absence, Assistant Manager Frédéric Piquionne and Claire Ditchburn took charge of the contest.
The starting XI primarily reflected the importance of the game; against lower-league competition in a non-league match, Piquionne and Ditchburn opted for several players who have been relegated to bench roles this season.
Chief among them was Megan Finnigan — who has seen her playing time gashed after earning the most minutes for the team last year — and Poppy Pattinson, who is cover at left back for Danielle Turner. Also among the starters was academy graduate Grace Clinton.
One of the Everton regulars who started the game was captain Izzy Christiansen, who controlled the middle of the pitch. The England international was decisive and composed on the ball through the first half.
Against the run of play, Durham logged the game’s first opportunity in the 26th minute. Central midfielder Molly Lambert found Abby Holmes behind Everton’s defense, but the forward saw her shot — one of Durham’s two attempts on the outing — parried away by goalkeeper Courtney Brosnan.
The Irish international is unfortunate to find herself the second-string goalie on the Toffees’ depth chart, but that has everything to do with Sandy MacIver’s magnificence than Brosnan’s talent, which is unquestioned.
Lucy Graham, a second-half substitute, almost bagged a goal in the 58th minute for the home side. Simone Magill, who has been in fine form since returning from bereavement, hit a cross from the left side, but Graham’s first-time volley unluckily caromed off the bar.
Three minutes after Graham nearly ended the deadlock, Everton finally broke Durgam’s defense. In the 61st minute, Toni Duggan netted her first goal since returning to Merseyside.
Sweden forward Hanna Bennison curled a corner, one of Everton’s seven of the contest, which Gabby George flicked on. The ball then fell to Finnigan, who found Duggan, and the winger crushed a shot off an eight-yard volley.
After Duggan gave her side the advantage, Durham never threatened again. The Blues saw out the game in comfortable fashion, picked up the three points and earned the shutout. The win keeps Everton’s hopes of advancing to the Continental Cup knockout stage alive. The Merseyside outfit plays Manchester United on Dec. 15 in the fifth and final game of the group phase.
For George, who has been one of the team’s top players this season, the focus moving forward must remain on defensive fortitude.
This season, defense has been an issue for the Liverpool-based club; the team has surrendered 14 goals and currently lags in the table with a minus-six goal differential. Everton also has suffered multiple blowouts to the top teams in the division.
“At the start of the season, we didn’t keep clean sheets,” George said. “[We were] conceding goals that are unacceptable by our standards. I think we just needed to take more pride in securing clean sheets. We’ve stuck together and got a couple of clean sheets, but we want to keep a lot more going forward.”
The Toffees turn their attention to Sunday for an 8 AM EST/1 PM GMT home meeting with West Ham. The Hammers currently sit in fifth place with 12 points. Should Everton pick up the victory, they could go as high as fifth in the league table, depending on other results.