These early season cup ties can often double up as fact-finding missions for managers in the embryonic stages of their reigns at new clubs – and Rafael Benítez will have learned plenty about his Everton squad here. Some of it good, some of it not so good.
The headline is that Everton are into round three of the Carabao Cup after Andros Townsend’s late strike was enough to put away a gamely spirited effort from Championship side Huddersfield Town. But that does little to explain the story of the match itself, or the questions Benítez will likely now have answers to about several members of his squad.
Chief among them is Moise Kean, whose confrontation with Sorba Thomas midway through the second half led to him receiving a straight red card that almost cost Everton their place in the third round. “He has to learn from that,” Benítez said of the 21-year-old’s moment of madness. With speculation lingering over a move away, you wonder if this could yet be Kean’s final contribution in an Everton shirt.
But on a night when Jean-Philippe Gbamin started his first game in over 730 days, the result was not the only positive for Benítez. “The fans can see that we’re trying to improve every player, and they see that we’re fighting for our club,” he said.
Benítez may also have raised a smile post-match as a clutch of Everton fans still inside the stadium as he conducted his media duties began chanting his name. How he will hope that trend continues in the weeks and months ahead.
Yet his side were given a real test here, as Huddersfield more than played their part in a compelling cup tie. The home side were the better team for large periods against Premier League opposition. Huddersfield’s biggest regret, however, will be that they didn’t take any of the chances that came their way after Kean was sent off.
Everton deservedly went ahead after a period of early dominance, with Alex Iwobi coolly finishing past Lee Nicholls after Tom Davies’s break from midfield freed the forward. Kean had the ball in the net shortly afterwards but was ruled to be offside and, frustratingly for the visitors, his night only went from bad to worse from thereon.
Huddersfield worked hard all evening and certainly deserved to be level at half-time when Tom Lees headed past Asmir Begovic. Thomas, who provided the assist for that goal, then delivered for Matty Pearson to head home shortly before Kean’s red card, but the header was ruled out after Fraizer Campbell was adjudged to be offside. It was a significant moment.
“Our target was to win the game, and we dominated parts of it,” Carlos Corberán, Huddersfield’s manager, said. “It is a pity that we couldn’t take it to penalties at least, but we have a lot of dignity from tonight. It was clear that in certain moments we were feeling strong and creating good chances.”
They were ultimately left to rue those missed opportunities, though. After Kean’s departure, Huddersfield continued to attack and looked to be the favourites to progress without the need for penalties. But in the end, they were caught out by a moment of quality from Everton, as Iwobi and André Gomes combined to create the opportunity that allowed Townsend to fire past Nicholls.
A man light for a prolonged period leading up to the winner, Benítez was understandably delighted with how his side battled against a Huddersfield side who were, at that point, well on top. The goal came against the run of play, but it also showed to serve the quality Benítez has at his disposal.
Spurred on by a loud West Yorkshire crowd, Huddersfield pushed for another equaliser in the final minutes, but unlike in the first half, this time Everton held firm to book their place in the next round. Whether Kean is still an Everton player by the time they play in this competition again remains to be seen. But on the whole, Benítez will have taken heart, rather than frustration, from this night.