Everton’s youthful Under 21 team, shorn of recent regulars Tom Cannon (on loan at Preston), Stan Mills, Reece Welch, Isaac Price (all training with the first team squad) and Seb Quirk (finalising a transfer to Accrington Stanley) made the long trip south to play against Southampton. Their aim was to try to ensure they progress from this season’s Premier League Cup group stages to the knockout phase.
The match was twice delayed by pitch inspections following the wintry weather on the south coast and eventually was played mid-afternoon.
Everton’s front two of Katia Kouyate and Francis Okoronkwo almost got in each other’s way in the 17th minute but sorted themselves out quickly for the latter to play in the onrushing 16 year old left wing back Ishe Samuels-Smith and he finished neatly at the goalkeeper’s near post, 1-0.
Less impressive 4 minutes later was the goal that equalised for the Saints as the goalkeeper’s long punt was allowed to bounce to the edge of the Blues area and Southampton attacker Pearce got there just before Zan-Luk Leban and toe-poked it into the net. The indecision between Eli Campbell and Leban was fatal. 1-1.
Things got worse before they got better and, disappointingly, it was only a further 3 minutes for the second Saints goal. This time slack marking and some misjudgement of the flight of the ball allowed Pambou to power a header from a free kick into the top corner, 1-2 and not looking good.
To their credit there was no collapse from Paul Tait’s young team and they clawed themselves back into the game before half-time, in the 3rd minute of added time with a great combination between the two Blues strikers. Okoronkwo, full of confidence and , because of his ability to play as a winger as well as a centre forward, beat his man on the left of the area and fired in an angled cross shot. Kouyate adjusted his feet well to fire home his 5th goal in this competition after the goalkeeper’s parry. 2-2 and a great time to equalise!
Just 8 minutes after the break, the Blues got what would turn out to be the match-winning goal and it was all of their own making and what a finish! Samuels-Smith and Kouyate applied a high press with the latter winning the ball, striding forward and returning the compliment to his fellow striker Okoronkwo. The finish was sublime as, under pressure from defenders and the outrushing ‘keeper the big striker coolly rolled the ball from under his right foot to his left, wrong-footing the defence and rolled the ball into the net. Ice cool from the big man, 3-2.
The Saints applied lots of pressure but some great defending and goalkeeping with the odd slice of good fortune saw the Blues run out as victors. Barring a freak combination of results by other teams their place in the knockout stages is secure.
A satisfying result in more ways than one. The absence of the U21 regulars gave starts to centre midfielders Matthew Apter and Callum Bates and also attacking midfielder Owen Barker. As an engine room they drew praise from manager Tait. Personally I have seen enough of this talented trio to feel optimistic about the future of the midfield at this level.
“It was an excellent win and I thought we played really well. Apart from maybe a 10-minute spell in the first-half when we switched off and allowed them to score two goals that could have been prevented, it was really good.
“It was a challenge mentally with the lads being in the dressing room for two-and-a-half hours before the warm-up, but they handled it really well. They were very professional.
“The two young lads in the centre of the midfield, Matty (Apter) and Callum (Bates), were excellent and I am looking forward to giving them more opportunities. They showed real tactical nous and they were quality in the passing.
“And the front two, Katia and Frankie, were a real handful. Both scored and could have had a couple more each and hopefully they are starting to develop a good partnership.”
The future is beginning to look bright again. Next up is a trip to Brighton on Sunday afternoon.