Under-23s Begin Title Defence With Hammers Draw

by Paul McNamara @Everton

Everton Under-23s launched their Premier League 2 title defence with a keenly-fought 0-0 draw at newly-promoted West Ham.

The Hammers, who included first-team star Michail Antonio in their line-up, were reduced to 10 men late on, when Conor Coventry received a second yellow card for not retreating at a free-kick.

The hosts were clinging onto their point at this juncture, after David Unsworth had tweaked his tactics and personnel at the interval – and been rewarded by his side taking charge of matters in the second 45 minutes.

Nonetheless, Everton could not capitalise on any of the chances which came their way – Jonjoe Kenny came closest with a shot driven into the woodwork – just as the Hammers had been unable to find any tangible reward for their first-half superiority.

Boss Unsworth has had the better part of two months to think about his team selection for this game.

All that plotting and planning - and inside 15 minutes he was forced into a change, with stricken forward Calum Dyson being replaced by Nathan Broadhead.

By that stage, defender Morgan Feeney had twice positioned himself smartly to deal with menacing left-sided deliveries from Antonio.

Feeney headed the winger’s first cross clear at the near post, before intervening to divert his cross-shot behind for a corner.

Rather than England squad-man Antonio, though, it was West Ham’s left-winger Grady Diangana who was inches from handing the hosts a first-half advantage.

He intercepted a Gethin Jones crossfield pass before striding forward confidently, only to direct his scuttling effort past Louis Gray’s left upright.

Jones was soon making amends with an immaculate tackle on Antonio to balk a Hammers’ counter, while Beni Baningime was booked for his foul on Diangana which stopped another home thrust.

Debutant Josh Bowler sent a shot thudding into a mass of defensive bodies after Jones had linked with Harry Charsley down the left.

But the Blues were short on genuine scoring chances – and grateful to go into the interval all square after Toni Martinez planted his header from Diangana’s free-kick an inch wide of the post.

Unsworth reacted by replacing Broadhead with Conor Grant in order to beef up his midfield, with Bassala Sambou operating as a lone forward.

And the changes had the desired effect. Grant powered his way past Martin Samuelsen to deliver a menacing cross that would have found Sambou in front of goal but for a terrific interception from Hammers’ centre-back Tunji Akinola.

That moment set the tone for a second half largely controlled by Unsworth’s young charges.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the game entered its closing quarter hour that the chances started to arrive. Bowler ended an adventurous dribble with a shot that travelled narrowly off target.

Sambou, stretching every sinew, was then agonisingly close to reaching Charsley’s left-wing cross. Everton recycled possession and right-back Kenny popped up in the box – indicative of the game’s flow – to hammer a deflected shot against goalkeeper Nathan Trott’s right-hand post.

West Ham keeper Nathan Trott was at full stretch to save Morgan Feeney’s header at the resultant corner.

The Hammers had a late opportunity of their own when Martinez was threaded through but, with Callum Connolly pleading for an offside flag, the Spaniard dragged his cross-shot past Blues number one Gray’s right-hand post.

There was still time for Coventry to receive his marching orders but West Ham saw out eight minutes of stoppage time to deny Everton victory on their return to competitive action.

Nonetheless, a good point on the road and plenty to like about a Blues performance that was full of character and no little ambition.

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