It was a satisfying evening for Everton Under-21s as Katia Kouyate’s early strike helped them cap off a busy spell of fixtures with a solid 1-1 draw against Fulham.
Assistant coach Keith Southern, in charge of the young Blues in the absence of manager Paul Tait who has overseen First-Team duties this week, named a young team containing five scholars for the Premier League 2 clash at Southport’s Haig Avenue.
Despite facing a more experienced Fulham outfit, Everton started with the kind of confidence expected following two impressive successive away wins against Southampton in the Premier League Cup last week and then Brighton back in league action on Sunday afternoon.
The Blues hit the ground running and were ahead inside three minutes when Kouyate held off pressure from defender Devan Tanton to latch onto a long ball from Kyle John. The forward then struck his effort early, catching goalkeeper Alex Borto cold as the ball kissed the upright en route to rustling into the bottom corner of the net.
That effort handed the ever-improving 19-year-old his sixth Under-21s strike of the season, and first in Premier League 2 action.
Provider John nearly doubled the Blues' advantage minutes later after some neat combination play on the edge of the box with Okoronkwo. However, his eventual shot was too central and found the grateful arms of Borto.
Elijah Campbell was next to go closest as the defender rose highest to meet Owen Barker’s corner, but he couldn’t direct his headed effort on target.
It was a dominant start for the home side, yet with their first chance of note, Fulham drew level.
In the 18th minute, Martial Godo received a ball into his feet inside the Everton penalty box, he managed to turn away from Reece Welch and towards the goal, however, the big defender recovered to block his goalward shot.
Unfortunately for him, the ball ricocheted into the path of Adrion Pajaziti who slotted the ball low and past Zan Luk Leban.
Fulham’s goal took the sting out of Everton’s play and the London outfit started to grow into the clash following their slow start. Yet, neither side was managing to convert their spells of possession into substantial efforts at goal.
That was until the game approached the break when Callum Bates struck a sweet volley from 25 yards out that stung the hands of Borto who, at full stretch, managed to parry the ball away.
The beginning of the second half lacked the same intensity as the first with neither side able to really get a foothold in the game and it took until the final 25 minutes for the fixture to burst back into life.
John, who proved a thorn in the away team's side all night, tenaciously broke down Everton’s right, evading challenges before driving into the middle of the pitch where he fed the ball out to Mackenzie Hunt who was unmarked on the edge of the box; his skewed his effort was high and wide.
The visitors nearly punished the Blues immediately after when they broke down Everton’s left and swung a low dangerous cross into the box. The ball landed at the feet of Oliver Sanderson just four yards out, he tried to slide his effort under Leban from a tight angle but the 20-yeard-old spread himself well to block the chance.
Minutes later, John was in the heart of the action again, he swung a cross into the box that eventually reached Welch, but Borto was equal to his right-footed strike to turn it around for a corner.
From the resulting set-piece, goalscorer Kouyate jumped highest and saw his headed shot tipped over the bar as Everton firmly settled into the ascendancy.
Despite the Blues’ growing dominance as the half went on, Fulham remained a threat on the break and created some dangerous half-chances, going closest through Godo's swiped effort across the goal with 12 minutes remaining.
The final moments of the match petered out without any real goalmouth action, meaning both sides were forced to settle for a share of the spoils. The result leaves Everton seventh in the Premier League 2 table, level on points with Fulham in sixth.
“I think it’s a fair result,” Southern told evertonfc.com post-match. “Two really good competitive sides playing in an end-to-end match and going toe-to-toe with each other.
“I thought we might have nicked it near the end with the big man at the back post, Reece. It was a lovely finish but the goalkeeper made a great save. Zan’s made some decent saves, too, so I think a draw was the fair result.
“Going into the game, we spoke about where the space might lie, especially with the two quick athletic players we have up top and it proved to be the case for the goal which was a lovely finish.
“I don’t think we capitalised on that start, we sat off a little bit and stopped doing some of the things that gave us success, but it’s all a learning curve for these players.”