Everton Under-23s were beaten 3-1 in their Merseyside derby encounter with Liverpool at Southport after falling victim to a rough first-half penalty decision.
Striker Fraser Hornby was penalised following an innocuous looking tussle with Reds defender Conor Masterson, enabling Dominic Solanke to convert the resultant 25th-minute spot-kick.
The Blues, who had been firmly in the ascendancy prior to the opening goal, were two behind on 29 minutes, when Rafael Camacho rifled in a deflected strike. Liverpool defender Nat Phillips forced home a third with 15 minutes remaining – before substitute Bassala Sambou struck a late consolation for David Unsworth’s team.
Everton’s initial intent was epitomised by Josh Bowler, the winger cutting in from the right and clattering the base of the post with a left-foot drive.
David Henen, perhaps drawing inspiration from Bowler’s ambition, was the next Toffees player to aim at goal. The Belgian spun on a pass from Nathan Broadhead to let fly with a long-range effort which spat up spitefully off the turf in front of Danny Ward. The Liverpool goalkeeper recovered after spilling the initial attempt to prevent the fast-closing Hornby from pouncing on the rebound.
Alex Denny went into the book on the quarter hour for a lunging tackle on Herbie Kane as the Everton player sought to make good an undercooked square pass from Henen.
But the Blues were soon driving at the visitors' rearguard once more. Broadhead picked himself up after being tugged by Kane to clip a free-kick which nicked off the wall and travelled a foot past Ward’s right post.
Everton’s superiority at this juncture was underlined by the fact Mateusz Hewelt had been asked to do nothing more than watch events unfold in front of him. Indeed, in the minutes preceding the Reds’ controversial breakthrough, it had been the hosts making all the running.
Nathan Markelo raced off the back of Ben Woodburn and had his adventure rewarded with a ball slipped into his path by midfielder Denny. Markelo lifted in a cross which was met by the leaping Hornby, forcing Ward to tumble to his left to save.
Everton’s escalating confidence could be accurately measured in the way Broadhead took on an impudent volleyed strike from 25 yards, the ball dipping late but narrowly clearing Ward’s crossbar.
Then came the moment which sucked the wind from the Toffees’ sails. Hornby and Liverpool centre-back Masterson contested Adam Lewis’ floated left-wing free-kick into the box. There was contact between the pair but nothing which appeared untoward.
Referee Simon Barrow nevertheless pointed to the spot and England international Solanke rolled his penalty inside goalkeeper Hewelt’s right-hand post.
Four minutes later and Liverpool dealt the Blues another hurtful blow. Portuguese Camacho latched on to Lewis’ pass down the right and thrashed a shot which – with the aid of a deflection off Lewis Gibson – defeated the wrong-footed Hewelt.
Henen’s direct running and dribbling continued to be a source of concern for Liverpool. Equally, Conor Grant’s range of passing from the centre of the park always looked capable of taking the visiting defence to places it didn’t want to go.
And those two factors collided to fashion an opening on 35 minutes. Grant rapped the ball into Henen, who showed right-back Corey Whelan a clean pair of heels before lifting in a delivery which narrowly evaded Hornby.
Everton swiftly recycled play at the back post, with Bowler eventually hammering a shot which Ward palmed out down to his left.
Henen had a glimpse of goal on the stroke of half-time after racing onto Hornby’s smash upfield following a Liverpool corner. The forward’s first touch forced him wide and, despite initially nudging the ball past Ward, he was swallowed up by a mass of retreating defenders.
Hornby’s sumptuous touch was responsible for creating the first opportunity following the restart. The Scottish striker dropped deep to lay off the ball for Bowler – operating in a central position after Danny Bramall had replaced Grant during the interval – to surge into the box and draw a fantastic low stop from Ward, the goalkeeper who was an integral part of Huddersfield Town’s promotion campaign last term.
Hewelt was equal to an arcing Camacho effort from distance – before Solanke and Hornby both saw yellow following an off-the-ball altercation.
Liverpool then saw two opportunities to extend their lead disappear in the blink of an eye. The overlapping George Johnston was fed by Woodburn to send in a low cross for Solanke. The striker’s finish beat Hewelt – but not Everton captain Gibson, back on his goalline and volleying clear.
In an instant Kane and Curtis Jones were combining to provide Camacho with a gilt-edged chance. The earlier scorer, 10 yards out and unmarked, shanked his attempt beyond the far post.
There was no denying Liverpool with 15 minutes left on the clock, however. Masterson's presence caused confusion in the Blues' box following a set-piece from the right, the ball eventually trickling into the net following the ensuing scramble, Phillips claiming the final touch.
Hewelt had his fingers stung after Solanke wriggled free of Gibson to unleash a fizzing drive before Sambou – on for Broadhead – prodded home in the dying minutes.
The former Coventry City man chased down a terrific ball over the top from Markelo, the Dutchman having been switched to a holding midfield role, and used all his strength to resist a cluster of defensive bodies and stab past Ward.
Indeed, Sambou could have added another, but after controlling a high pass, completely misjudged by Phillips, he fired high of the target.
Everton remain seventh and complete their Premier League 2 campaign with a trip to Old Trafford to face relegated Manchester United on Friday.