Under-21s Hit Back To Close In On Last 16

An excellent performance from a young Everton Under-21s side earned them a 3-2 victory at Southampton in their final game of the Premier Leaguer Cup group stage to virtually assure themselves of progression to the last 16.

Given that the kick-off was delayed by almost two hours waiting for a playable pitch at the Saints Academy, this was a display rich in character and determination.

Everton took an early lead through Ishe Samuels-Smith, only for the hosts to go ahead before the half-hour mark with two quickfire goals. Katia Kouyate restored parity before the break, however, and fellow forward Francis Okoronkwo bagged the winner seven minutes into the second half.

That meant Paul Tait's side remained second in the four-team Group F, and they will make the knockout stages unless Birmingham City can beat Colchester United by a nine-goal margin when they play on Friday.

Tait said: "It was an excellent win and I thought we played really well. Apart from maybe a 10-minute spell in the first-half when we switched off and allowed them to score two goals that could have been prevented, it was really good.

"It was a challenge mentally with the lads being in the dressing room for two-and-a-half hours before the warm-up, but they handled it really well. They were very professional."

An early volley from Owen Barker just cleared the crossbar after the young Blues midfielder had shown good ingenuity to create the opening on the edge of the box, flicking the ball over the defender before taking the shot.

The opening goal came in the 17th minute. Kouyate tried to wriggle through the home defence and when he ran out of space, Okoronkwo fed the ball to Samuels-Smith who hammered an angled drive past the keeper at the near post.

The lead lasted five minutes. Neither Eli Campbell or goalkeeper Zan-Luk Leban took control of a forward pass into the Blues box and their mutual indecision allowed Luke Pearce to poke the ball into the net.

Less than three minutes later, a Jack Turner free-kick was headed into the top corner by Saints defender Leon Pambou to put the hosts ahead.

Everton were shaken and a poor back pass from Joe Anderson hit the foot of his own post before the dangerous Pearce almost netted again when he curled a fine effort just over. That came just after he had forced Leban into an excellent save from close-range.

The Blues steadied themselves, though, and levelled just 20 seconds before the half-time whistle. Okoronkwo cut inside from the left and when his effort was parried by Ollie Wright, Kouyate was well-placed to turn home the loose ball.

Everton took the lead again seven minutes after the break. Kouyate ran at the Saints rearguard before releasing the ball to Okoronkwo who showed superb composure to wrong foot the keeper and a defender before netting.

The Blues, without hitherto regulars like Tom Cannon, Isaac Price, Stanley Mills and Reece Welch, showed great desire and energy in pressing the hosts really well when they had possession and used the ball efficiently themselves, passing it quickly and creating openings.

The game management as the second-half progressed was excellent, with Kyle John and Anderson superb at the back and young Callum Bates so impressive in midfield.

Barker, too, looked lively throughout and a mazy dribble across the Saints penalty area ended with a shot that went narrowly wide.

Barring an absolutely freakish sequence of results, Everton will now travel to Bristol City in the knockout phase.

Tait added: "We took the sting out of them and then we dominated the game. It was difficult for them to get the ball off us with our shape and the way we moved the ball.

The two young lads in the centre of the midfield, Matty (Apter) and Callum (Bates), were excellent and I am looking forward to giving them more opportunities. They showed real tactical nous and they were quality in the passing.

"And the front two, Katia and Frankie, were a real handful. Both scored and could have had a couple more each and hopefully they are starting to develop a good partnership.

"Southampton can be difficult to handle and the way we chose to play against them worked because they really test you. Tactically we were spot on."