Everton defender Ramiro Funes Mori looks to be edging closer to making his first-team return after a second consecutive outing at Under-23 level in which he was encouragingly said to have "looked the part" by coach David Unsworth.

Funes Mori has not played any senior matches for club or country since March 2017, when the centre-back was stretchered off in the first half of Argentina's 2-0 World Cup qualifying defeat to Bolivia in La Paz with a season-ending torn meniscus.

He suffered a setback in his recovery in July and was expected to be sidelined for a minimum of six to nine months after undergoing further surgery in Barcelona.

Funes Mori made his first appearance for nearly 10 months at Meadow Park last week with a 45-minute cameo for Everton's Under-23s in a heavy Eddie Nketiah and Reiss Nelson-inspired 4-0 Premier League 2 loss to Arsenal.

And while he was unsurprisingly off the pace in that match, the 26-year-old was singled out for praise after a more accomplished showing over 74 minutes alongside Mason Holgate in Monday night's (12 February) Premier League Cup triumph over Barnsley sealed by a late goal from stand-in captain Antony Evans.

"I think that was Funes back to a bit of form," Unsworth was quoted as saying by Everton's official website. "He struggled against Arsenal the other week, but obviously that was his first run-out. Today was a commanding performance. He looked the part."

The long-awaited return to fitness of Funes Mori, provided he endures no more hiccups, should come as a real boost to an injury-plagued Everton defence that was decried as potentially the club's worst for 42 years according to recent statistics supplied by the Liverpool Echo.

Michael Keane was purchased from Burnley in the summer in a deal that could eventually be worth as much as £30m ($41.6m), but the leaky backline - in addition to the lack of a replacement for departed striker Romelu Lukaku - still proved to be an obvious weakness under Ronald Koeman and during Unsworth's disappointing eight-match reign as caretaker boss.

Koeman's permanent successor Sam Allardyce, who signed Eliaquim Mangala on loan from Manchester City on transfer deadline day, initially looked to have resolved those issues before they returned in January and were laid bare during an embarrassing 5-1 mauling by Arsenal.

However, Everton have now conceded just four times in eight home matches since appointing Allardyce and only a late Luka Milivojevic penalty - awarded for a handball by substitute Ashley Williams - prevented them from keeping a clean sheet during Saturday's 3-1 win over Crystal Palace at Goodison Park.

Mangala and the recently returned Seamus Coleman - along with Idrissa Gana Gueye - both left that game with injuries, while Leighton Baines remains out with a calf problem. With their FA Cup involvement ended and the next league fixture against Watford not until 24 February, Everton are due to fly out to the Middle East tomorrow for a warm weather training camp.

Ramiro Funes Mori
Everton defender Ramiro Funes Mori has been stepping up his fitness with David Unsworth's Under-23s James Chance/Getty Images