Everton Under-21s’ chances of making it through to the quarter-finals of the Premier League International Cup took a blow after they were defeated 2-1 by Villarreal.
Francisco Sol’s well-placed shot a quarter of an hour from the end was enough to seal victory for the Spanish visitors in a tightly-contested match at Goodison Park.
The Young Blues had earlier displayed strong character to fight back and make it 1-1 through David Henen’s 55th-minute header, which cancelled out Alfonso Pedraza’s early opener.
The defeat means Everton must beat Sunderland in their final group game at the start of March to be in with a shout of making it into the last-eight of the competition.
Villarreal went ahead with the game’s first attack. A slick passing move culminated in left-winger Pedraza finding space on the edge of the area, pivoting and burying into the Gwladys Street goal with only three minutes played.
It took Everton a while to recover from the setback of conceding early but once they found their rhythm, their Spanish opponents started experiencing problems at the back.
Francisco Junior volleyed over following a slick move down the right channel and Henen’s effort from a tight angle was clutched well by Villarreal stopper Miguel Banuz.
Everton, however, could have easily found themselves trailing by a bigger deficit when Jose Manuel Garcia Naranjo fired over from a position where he should have been at least working keeper Mateusz Hewelt on the half-hour mark.
Winger Cristian Herrera also failed to hit the target with a volley - but it was the Young Toffees that finished the first half stronger.
Courtney Duffus saw a powerful run-and-shot deflected over and Sylvain Distin – featuring as one of the permitted over-age players - headed straight at Banuz from a corner as the Blues searched for a leveller in the lead up to the break.
Everton were unable to find it prior to the break – but the goal did arrive 10 minutes into the second half through Henen.
A free-kick on the left touchline was whipped in by Ryan Ledson and the young Belgian forward managed to flick a header over Banuz and into the net.
Henen then went close to grabbing his and Everton’s second in the next attack, cutting in from the right and drilling a low shot just wide of the upright.
Everton seemed to have the momentum heading into the closing stages – but they were hit when Sol produced a top draw finish to put the Spaniards back in front a quarter of an hour from the end.
The forward managed to dig the ball out from under his feet and curled into the top corner from the edge of the box, leaving Hewelt with no chance.
Everton refused to let their heads go down and they went again – substitute George Green and Junior were off-target with efforts from distance, while Henen shot straight at Banuz late on.
There was to be no second equaliser, however, as Villarreal hung on to keep alive their own chances of making it through to the quarter-finals.
Everton now know a victory is a must against Sunderland in their final group game to progress.
Hewelt, Connolly (Charsley 72), Galloway, Ledson (Walsh 76), Distin, Kenny, Junior, Dowell (Green 60), Duffus, Henen, Jones (Subs not used: Hunt, Langton, Davies, Dyson)
Banuz, Martinez, F Garcia, Ramirez, Puerto, Larrea, Herrera (Gonzalez 63), A Garcia, Sol, Naranjo, Pedraza (Marlos 46) (Subs not used: Cebria, Jiminez, Ojog, Orts)