Funes Mori Returns To Action In Under-23s Defeat

by Paul McNamara

Ramiro Funes Mori played his first 45 minutes of competitive football since March 2017, as Everton Under-23s went down to a 4-0 Premier League 2 defeat at Arsenal.

Centre-half Funes Mori, who has been sidelined with a serious knee injury sustained playing for Argentina, completed his long-awaited return without any alarms, albeit he could not prevent his side from falling two goals behind before the interval.

Eddie Nketiah deflected in Joe Willock's effort to put Arsenal in front on 12 minutes, with Reiss Nelson doubling the hosts’ lead 14 minutes later.

Nketiah scored twice inside 15 second-half minutes to complete his hat-trick and round off a convincing victory for a dominant Gunners side.

Arsenal started the game brimming with purpose and movement – and forced Mateusz Hewelt into action inside the opening 60 seconds. The Toffees goalkeeper got down sharply to repel Willock’s close-range prod after the midfielder diverted a cross from the left towards the target.

Nketiah then swiped an effort across the face of goal after being picked out on the right of the area by Nelson, with Nelson next to have a pop, the mobile winger testing Hewelt with a bouncing, 20-yard strike which the Everton number one parried away to his left.

Defender Lewis Gibson was first on the scene to knock the loose ball behind – but from the resultant corner the home team forced the breakthrough they had been threatening from the off.

The right-wing delivery sparked a bout on pinball in the visitors’ box, but when the ball alighted with Willock, 10 yards out, he drove towards goal. The effort smashed into Nketiah, whose unwitting touch sent the ball flashing past Hewelt and into the net.

Nelson stretched Arsenal’s advantage on 28 minutes, shortly after Hewelt had hurtled from his line to thwart Vlad Dragomir, who had reacted quickest to dart in behind Funes Mori after Gibson’s clearance cannoned off Jordi Osei-Tutu and fizzed into the Blues’ box.

There was little the Polish stopper could do, however, when Nelson was threaded through by Willock, who had collected a throw-in on the left and spied his teammate making a dash down the middle.

Nelson reached the ball ahead of the advancing Hewelt, nudged the ball beyond the ‘keeper and completed the job by stroking into an empty net.

Romanian midfielder Dragomir then dumped a free-kick into Everton’s defensive wall, before a menacing Jose Baxter set-piece, which was headed away by Arsenal's former Bolton Wanderers centre-half, Rob Holding, proved the catalyst for a period of Blues’ pressure.

Antony Evans, who had demonstrated his appetite for the fight with a few thundering challenges in the middle of the park, spun and volleyed at goal – but directly into the midriff of goalkeeper Deyan Iliev.

Holding was a yard from turning into his own net after getting his body into an awkward position as he cleared Gibson’s right-wing set-piece. And from the resultant corner an almighty scramble ended with Bassala Sambou being denied on the line by Osei-Tutu, albeit the linesman had raised his flag having detected the Everton man drifting offside.

Funes Mori was replaced by Alex Denny at the interval, and the narrative of the contest after the restart was primarily dictated by Arsenal.

Morgan Feeney, his team’s outstanding performer on the night, blocked twice in quick succession, first repelling a Nketiah volley at close quarters, then getting in the way of a drive from Emile Smith Rowe.

The sides then traded free-kick strikes at goal. Hewelt fielded a 25-yard effort from Willock, who deposited his shot down the ‘keeper’s throat, with Iliev standing similarly firm when Evans’ dead-ball attempt spat up off the turf and into the Gunners’ number one’s gloves.

There was more resolute defending from skipper Feeney to divert a goalbound drive from Dragovic round the post – but Arsenal soon had their third goal of the night.

Nketiah skilfully manoeuvred the ball out of his feet after receiving a punched pass from the excellent Willock. The striker’s finish was unerring, drilled across Hewelt and inside the ‘keeper’s right-hand post.

Hewelt was then rapidly off his line to prevent Nketiah from latching onto a ball over the top, with the stopper’s next act to athletically tip behind a free-kick from Dragomir.

Between times, Fraser Hornby’s header from Conor Grant’s lofted left-sided free-kick was comfortably pouched by Iliev.

But it was the Gunners in the ascendancy and Nketiah inflicted a further blow on the Toffees with 13 minutes to play. The 18-year-old darted to the near post and met Smith Rowe’s right-wing delivery with a smart, first-time finish, which defeated Hewelt down to his left.

Another brave Feeney block – this time from Dragomir – and an excellent fingertip save by Hewelt to keep out substitute Charlie Gilmour’s free-kick prevented Arsenal from adding to their tally on a tough night for the Blues, when the good news came in the shape of 26-year-old Funes Mori's long-awaited comeback.

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