There were a few welcome sights on Wednesday night as Paul Tait’s Everton Under 21s had a few very “over 21s” in the starting line up, all getting some much-needed competitive match practice. Seamus Coleman, after his 8 month injury lay-off, made his third start at this level while there were games for senior defenders Michael Keane and Ben Godfrey with third choice goalkeeper Billy Crellin also getting the nod. The opposition was the Spanish side Athletic Club (formerly known as Athletic Bilbao) in the Premier League International Cup competition.
The Blues were, interestingly, in a line-up that mirrored Sean Dyche’s 4-4-1-1, a real divergence from the formations used so far for Paul Tait’s team. Maybe a sign that it would ease transition into the first team if everyone follows the same blueprint? Sean Dyche was present and watched the game from the stands.
On a very windy Walton Hall Park pitch (one of the local roads is unsurprisingly called Breeze Hill) the conditions were a little difficult but the Blues played some good football and had a chance as early as the second minute. Halid Djankpata, playing the “Doucoure role” fed Francis Okoronkwo whose well hit shot was just a little too direct at the goalkeeper who saved for a corner.
A feature of the first half especially was the running of Lewis Dobbin, playing off the left wing. He was always positive and direct and was just a touch off finishing on a few occasions before he took a chance he hadn’t created personally in the 41st minute. A long ball from Coleman down the right wing hung in the breeze before Okoronkwo bullied himself into possession of the ball to the right of the area. He passed low across the edge of the box for Sean McAllister to unselfishly and expertly lay the ball off for Dobbin. His low right footed drive found the bottom corner of the net. 1-0.
Although it was a hard-fought and entertaining game it was also an even contest. The nearest Everton came to doubling their lead came in the 63rd minute as the impressive Jenson Metcalfe took a cheeky low right footed shot from a free-kick when it had appeared to everybody, including Athletic’s goalkeeper, that he was going to cross the ball.
It required a smart save from Crellin in the 72nd minute to preserve the Toffees’ lead as the Spaniards almost capitalised on a Godfrey error.
As the game went into added time, yet another great run and shot by Dobbin brought a fine save at the near post but the Blues hung on to claim the single goal victory.
It will be a positive for Sean Dyche to have seen his three seniors all get 90 minutes against a busy Athletic side. Coleman especially was clearly almost back to full match readiness which will be a big boost to the first team squad. Dyche also cannot fail to have been impressed with Dobbin or midfielder Metcalfe who pretty much orchestrated everything from the middle of the pitch, ably assisted by the hard-working McAllister.
The Under 21s are back in action at Walton Hall Park next Tuesday (7pm GMT), taking on their AS Monaco counterparts in this same competition.