David Unsworth said his Everton Under-23s side have given themselves "a great opportunity" after they beat Blackburn 2-0 at Southport to move four points clear at the top of Premier League 2 with five games to play.
“We’d rather be where we are than anywhere else but we haven’t achieved anything yet," said Unsworth. "We’ve got a five-game season now and we’ve given ourselves a great opportunity.
“It’s a great win, really professional. The way we adapted to tricky conditions, I’ve got nothing but praise for the players because I thought they were outstanding.”
First-half goals from Bassala Sambou and Fraser Hornby secured the victory and a man of the match display from goalkeeper Mateusz Hewelt kept the visitors at bay.
“That’s the best I’ve seen him,” said Unsworth. “I’ve told him that. He made saves to keep us in the game and it was a fantastic performance. He gave us a platform to go and win the game. His was one of a number of outstanding performances.”
Blackburn started the brighter of the two teams and Everton were indebted to Hewelt for two fine saves to thwart Joseph Nuttall and John Buckley. The first, from Nuttall, was particularly impressive, Hewelt diving to his right to palm away the effort.
Everton took the lead in the 18th minute and it was a fabulous goal. Hornby did well to hold the ball up on the edge of the Blackburn box and when he teed up Sambou, the striker smashed an unstoppable shot into the top corner of the net.
“It was fantastic strike,” said Unsworth. “He worked his socks off tonight and he gives us so much. He gets us on the front foot and we like to press from the front.”
The advantage was doubled on the half-hour mark when Rovers keeper Charlie Albinson couldn’t hold Anthony Gordon’s shot and Hornby followed up to score.
Albinson then did far better to keep out another Hornby effort shortly after and, at the other end, Hewelt was at it again to repel a drive from Daniel Butterworth in first-half added time.
The Everton keeper was in inspired form and his 59th-minute stop to deny Joseph Rankin-Costello had the Rovers player shaking his head in disbelief.
The second period lacked the quality and fluidity of the first. Everton came close to a third goal when Nathan Broadhead’s shot just cleared the crossbar and there was a worry for Unsworth when Morgan Feeney limped off midway through the half.
For Rovers, Butterworth’s cross-cum-shot that shaved the top of the Everton crossbar late on was the closest they came to pulling a goal back.
This was a thoroughly deserved third straight league win that keeps the young Blues firmly in pole position in the table.