Everton salvaged their Carabao Cup lives in remarkable and thrilling fashion at Huddersfield on Tuesday night.
Is that overstating it? Ask any of the three thousand Evertonians who erupted when Andros Townsend lifted the ball into the roof of the net with 11 minutes remaining.
This was like one of those unplanned nights out that turns into a barnstormer.
Everton went in front on 26 minutes when Alex Iwobi prodded in a smart finish after being released by Tom Davies.
Rafael Benitez’s side deserved their lead, which felt overdue, and appeared set to canter to a place in round three.
That was to reckon without a stirring Huddersfield riposte, however. The Championship side emerged from their shells about 10 minutes before half-time and equalised in the 45th minute when Tom Lees headed home from a corner.
Everton’s task grew more difficult when Moise Kean was shown a red card following a 59th-minute altercation with Sorba Thomas.
Moments earlier, Asmir Begovic, making his Everton debut, saved brilliantly from Duane Holmes and Huddersfield had the ball in the net at the resultant corner, only for the ‘goal’ to be chalked off for offside.
Manager Benitez made changes in an attempt to redirect the flow of the game and on 79 minutes one of Everton’s substitutes, Andre Gomes, advanced towards the penalty area from the left.
Gomes passed to Iwobi, who had his back to goal but was given time by Matty Pearson to guide a return pass to the Portuguese.
Midfielder Gomes picked up pace before directing the ball to the near post, where Townsend darted from his wide right position to spark bedlam among the travelling fans behind the goal.
Kean was starting a competitive Everton game for the first time in nearly 12 months – and twice in the opening exchanges the Italian was close to marking his return with a goal.
Huddersfield manager Carlos Coberan is a jack-in-a-box on the touchline, dressed in his beige chinos and dark, loose top, gesticulating and imploring non-stop.
But Corberan was especially exercised by his team repeatedly gifting possession to their opponents in the opening 10 minutes.
The trend began after three minutes when Thomas turned infield form the right and presented the ball Kean.
Kean made for goal, centre-back Lees back-pedalling, and, with minimal backlift, sent a strike speeding past the left post.
Iwobi, relishing his central role, surged forwards 60 seconds later. The pass went left to liverwire Niels Nkounkou.
He cut the ball back for Kean, whose shot was saved by Lee Nicholls down to his right.
There was evidently something in the air because Nkounkou nearly surrendered possession with a backpass he underhit from the left.
Begovic, however, anticipated the danger and was rapidly out to tidy up. The Bosnian keeper was sharper still after 25 minutes, reading a ball over the top to race to the edge of his box and frustrate Frazier Campbell.
Everton were in front one minute later. And, in truth, the goal was coming right from the moment Thomas played that early loose pass.
Davies and Jean-Phillipe Gbamin, making his first Everton start since 17 August 2019, were controlling midfield.
Gbamn effortlessly fending off challenges, anticipating and stealing possession and confidently advancing with the ball at his feet.
Davies was tigerish, strong in the challenge, ran beyond his forwards – he crossed from near the byline for Nkounkou to thrash over after 19 minutes – and played arguably the pass of the night when his drilled ball picked out Nkounkou on the left wing.
Townsend had a half chance after 19 minutes, and it was largely of the forward’s own making.
Scott High was pressured into a wayward pass by Davies, Kean the recipient and feeding Townsend.
Townsend’s deft first touch with the inside of his left foot guided the ball right and opened up a shooting opportunity.
The strike travelled past Nicholls’ right post – but Townsend had a hand in the move which finished with the Huddersfield keeper beaten soon after.
Townsend held off two challenges with his back to goal to turn the ball to the onrushing Davies.
Crucially, centre-back Naby Sarr was one of those pursuing Townsend, leaving space for Davies to run forwards unchallenged.
In the penalty area, Davies retained his cool to feed Iwobi, who jabbed the ball beyond Nicholls before embarking on a joyful celebration with Kean and Nkounkou.
The trio were denied a chance to repeat their dance routine two minutes later when a flag went up as Kean drove forwards to thrash high into the net following a rousing run and pass from the furious Nkounkou.
It was a very tight call.
The first indication of a Huddersfield revival arrived 11 minutes before the break. Thomas crossed from the right and Danel Sinani hit the bouncing ball on target, Begovic – who originally set off to his right – readjusting to save low to his left.
Sinani’s effort on the follow up lacked composure and was wild – and 10 minutes later Campbell was too high when, under pressure from Mason Holgate and losing his footing, he shot over from 20 yards.
Everton had another chance between times, one wing-back in Jonjoe Kenny finding the other, Nkounkou, for a strike that flew over the top.
Sinani, Huddersfield’s Luxembourg international attacker, regained his cool on 45 minutes.
Neat footwork was followed by a goalbound strike that Holgate diverted behind.
Thomas whipped in the left-wing corner, Lees arriving like a steam train to head into the roof of the net.
Huddersfield tried to capitalise on the momentum shift immediately after the restart.
Sinani was wide following a strong run and Michael Keane blocked a drive from Thomas.
Indeed, those two Huddersfield players, combining down the hosts’ right, were the source of the majority of their team’s most enterprising play.
Sinani’s whipped cross from the right flew beyond the far post.
A similar delivery from Townsend on 54 minutes was awkwardly forced over his own bar by Lees.
But the hosts were in the ascendancy and it needed a brilliant tip over from Begovic to deny Duane Holmes after the striker let fly from 25 yards,
There was drama at the ensuing corner, Huddersfield having a goal chalked off because Campbell was offside – and interfering with Begovic’s sightline – when Pearson headed home Sinani’s delivery.
Kean saw red following a coming together with Thomas, prompting Benitez – who had already replaced Jarrad Branthwaite with Andre Gomes – to send on Lucas Digne for Davies.
It was Gomes who created Townsend’s winner, which visibly sucked the life from Huddersfield.
Indeed, Everton could have had a third when Nicholls blocked a low effort from Gray in stoppage time.
Two was all they needed, however, to book a spot in Wednesday’s third-round draw.
Begovic Impresses On Debut
Asmir Begovic played 51 matches for Bournemouth last season but is poised for a different role following a summer transfer to Everton.
The Bosnian goalkeeper’s playing opportunities – assuming a consistent clean bill of health for England number one Jordan Pickford – are likely to be relatively infrequent.
Begovic didn’t have to wait long for a debut regardless and what a luxury for Everton to call on the 34-year-old with 63 international caps for this cup contest early in the season.
The former Stoke City and Chelsea player boasts a wealth of experience and more than 250 Premier League appearances.
He exudes confidence and authority and arrived at Everton last month vowing to act as one of the leaders in Rafael Benitez’s squad.
Begovic’s handling was certain and transmitted confidence to the three centre-halves in front of him.
The keeper was twice unexpectedly called into action in the opening half.
Niels Nkounkou didn’t get as much on a back pass as intended but Begovic was briskly out to sweep up.
Around the 25th minute, Frazer Campbell chased a ball over the top but was met at the 18-yard line by Begovic, smothering at the striker’s feet.
Begovic’s first save was a good one, too, readjusting to spring to his left and keep out a close-range effort from Danel Sinani in the 34th minute.
The second stop from Everton’ new goalkeeper was brilliant.
Duane Thomas’ strike from 25 yards was fast and dipping under the bar until Begovic took off to apply a gossamer touch which diverted the ball over the top.
A high claim under pressure from powerhouse Naby Sarr as 10-man Everton resisted a Huddersfield onslaught was a defender’s dream.
Begovic became Everton’s 87th different starting goalkeeper on Tuesday. It’s a fair bet not many of the previous 86 had a start as lively as this one.
Unfamiliar Everton Get Job Done
The stadium DJ played Thin Lizzy’s The Boys Are Back In Town during the countdown to kick-off and, for Everton, the sentiment felt appropriate.
Rafael Benitez made nine changes to his team and among those coming in were a number who haven’t featured for the Club for a long while.
More than two years – or 738 days – in the case of Jean-Philippe Gbamin.
Moise Kean last began a match for Everton when Salford City were beaten at the same stage of this competition 11 months ago.
Of the back five who began the game, two spent the second half of 2020/21 away on loan – Jonioe Kenny at Celtic and Jarrad Branthwaite with Blackburn Rovers.
Niels Nkonukou, meanwhile, last started for Everton on his 20th birthday, in a Premier League match at Newcastle United on 1 November last year.
Asmir Begovic was making his debut and there was a first outing of any kind this term for Tom Davies.
This Everton starting side, then, had never played together – and, chances are, they might not again.
In that context, it was impressive to watch the visitors’ cohesive and confident beginning to the game.
Everton exerted control from the outset, dominating the ball and spending prolonged periods in offensive territory.
When Huddersfield tried to play out from the back, as is their wont, Everton’s closing was slick and co-ordinated.
Kean twice went close inside the opening four minutes – one of those opportunities teed up by Nkounkou – and Gbamin showed up fabulously from the start.
The Ivorian travels powerfully with the ball, is strong in the challenge and a very good reader of the game.
Nkounkou owns buckets of energy and has pace to burn. When the Frenchman gets going, he is very difficult to stop and there were countless bursts forward from left-back.
The real test for this unfamiliar line-up, however, began when Huddersfield cranked up the pressure following their equaliser.
Everton were under the pump, no question, and feared they’d fallen behind when Matty Pearson headed in Siniani’s corner shortly before the hour.
They had to play the final 31 minutes with 10 men following Kean’s dismissal. The reduced numbers meant a sole frontrunning job for Alex Iwobi, while Lucas Digne was introduced on the left.
Nkounkou eventually gave way to Demarai Gray as Benitez sought to stem the Huddersfield tide.
And, with renewed attacking purpose, Everton came again. Substitute Andre Gomes drove into the box with intent, Townsend made an equally purposeful run off the ball and, in the final reckoning fortune favoured the brave.
And this new-look Everton team found a way into the next round of the cup.
Benitez Extends Unbeaten Start
Everton kept the light shining on a bright start to the season with this victory at Huddersfield Town to claim a place in tomorrow’s Carabao Cup third-round draw.
Rafael Benitez chose to preserve the legs of some of those who played in two high-intensity games to open the Premier League season, trusting others to negotiate a tricky task.
The Spanish manager understandably cautioned against complacency pre-match, explaining his personnel tweaks – amid a busy week – would add to the jeopardy of a tricky encounter.
Huddersfield are in good touch, they won at the death at Sheffield United on Saturday, and had nothing to lose against Premier League opponents.
If the Championship team could treat this as a relative free hit, it was anything but for Everton.
Expectation was squarely on Benitez’s team but a composed and controlled performance belied that undercurrent of pressure.
Defeat here, an early exit from a cup competition they’d dearly love to win, would have cast a cloud over the promising beginnings under the new boss.
Equally, it was important to sustain momentum ahead of a visit to Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday that will draw a line under the campaign’s opening month.
Benitez was keen to emphasise his team had “done nothing yet” after the thrill-a-minute draw with Leeds United at the weekend.
He will, perhaps, adopt a similar outlook following this victory, ultimately achieved in very difficult circumstances.
Everton didn’t win anything on their second trip to West Yorkshire inside four days.
But they didn’t lose anything, either – and avoiding disappointment is the sole objective in these early cup rounds.