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Southport FC | 22nd April 2013 19:00

Everton U21s v Sunderland U21s

Everton Under-21s sealed qualification to the final league phase with a 0-0 draw against Sunderland on Monday evening.

The Blues only needed a point to secure top spot in Group One, and the stalemate at Southport was enough to put Alan Stubbs' side safely adrift of the chasing pack.

Despite dominating much of the game, including much of the second period, the firing squad of Apostolos Vellios, Chris Long et al could not make celebrations sweeter.

Two league matches are still left to play, and they now offer pressure-free preparation ahead of the knockout stage.

The fixture at the Merseyrail Community Stadium offered Tony Hibbert another chance to step up his rehabiliation following calf surgery.

The veteran right-back enjoyed his third successive appearance for the Under-21s following his four-month spell on the sidelines, while goalkeeper Jan Mucha was also permitted to feature courtesy of the league's rule on overage players.

Not that the Slovakian had a great deal to do at Southport.

Everton had much the better openings in the first period, as Apostolos Vellios, Chris Long and Tyias Browning all came close.

After mosly half-chances, Long had the best opportunity on 27 minutes when he caught the Black Cats napping at the back.

Goalkeeper Pickford came out on top in the subsequent one-on-one, however.

Such was the free-flowing system that the Toffees were utilising, even Browning - at left-back for the evening - was able to venture forward.

The England Under-19 international helped to start the move on 32 minutes and almost completed it, but his low shot was too tame to trouble Pickford.

Stubbs made two changes at the break, replacing Garbutt with Matthew Pennington and Vellios with in-form Under-18s forward George Waring.

And the additions forced the Blues into an improved second-half showing.

Right-back Pennington looked to have carved the golden opportunity required, but Long could only head his swinging cross over the crossbar on 53 minutes.

Francisco Junior was next to trouble the palms of Pickford, with the Portuguese midfielder forcing a save following John Stones' cut-back.

The lively Long would go close on a further two occassions, firstly tricking his way around a defender only to see his shot hit the side-netting, before seeing another effort denied by the Sunderland stopper.

With time ticking by and the Blues hurriedly searching for the win, there was a late scare for Mucha at the other end. 

But with the custodian stranded as a Sunderland counter caused problems in the box, it took a deflection off his retreating defenders to steer a curling shot away from goal.

The result was the minimum required, even if the performance merited more.

While Everton Under-21s complete their final two Group One games, their play-off opponents are yet to be decided, with as many as six teams still able to clinch the vital top-spot in Group Two.

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