Something for Reds fans to celebrate at long last. The overall performance may have again left a lot to be desired and similar concerns may persist in the post-match post-mortem, but a win against bitter rivals – and I mean that in every sense – Everton at Goodison Park was ultimately all that was desired. Finally another three points on the board, back-to-back victories secured, most importantly the confidence boost of a win over our near neighbours, made for a satisfying afternoon’s work.
The build-up to the 212th edition of the Merseyside Derby had been an unusually muted affair. Largely due to the fact that both sides went into the clash against the backdrop of poor recent form and generally difficult seasons to date. However the stakes were ultimately just as high, as both teams sought a confidence boosting victory.
This performance may be best described as hard working and industrious rather than eye-catching. But what mattered most was that it secured a potentially vital league victory, just the Reds second since 26th September.
It would be all too easy to focus on the recurring negatives which again punctuated Liverpool’s performance of Sunday afternoon. But it is equally important to savour this triumph and strive to use it as impetus to find some form and solve some of the persistent problems which have hindered the campaign to date.
Post-match analysis has predictiably been dominated by hard luck stories from a Blue-tinted perspective. Sure Everton dominated possession for large periods of the game and Liverpool were far off their best, continuing to lack an element of control and penetration in midfield and up-front.
However, it is also possible to take another perspective on the match. Liverpool’s defending was astute and assured throughout, an encouraging improvement on recent weeks. Against typically direct and set-piece heavy Everton tactics the away backline was solid. Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger led by example in the centre. Whilst Javier Mascherano and Lucas put in an effective and energetic display ahead of them, if one again lacking in the necessary creativity. The only time the Reds recent defensive frailities were in evidence here was soon after the opening goal, when Russian Diniyar Bilyaletdinov was presented with a glorious opportunity at the far post after the Liverpool defence twice failed to deal with a long trow into the box.
The home side were unable to make their periods of dominance count, whilst Liverpool were able to take their opportunities when it mattered. We could all recount countless occasions when a similar scenario has befallen the Reds in the recent past. This win was built on hardwork and desire – two not to be understated ingredients for success, although much more will be demanded over coming weeks.
Admittedly Liverpool’s first half lead owed much to luck as well. Mascherano’s 12th minute shot from 25 yards was certainly heading on a course wide of the post before a wicked deflection off the shin of Joseph Yobo took the ball beyond Tim Howard in the Everton goal. Aside from this telling contribution, the little Argentine was a stand-out contender for man-of-the-match, alongside Pepe Reina. His dynamic and destructive midfield performance inspired Rafa’s men at times, and the desire spread.
Up until Mascherano’s opener the Reds had appeared to start the game the livelier of the two sides. However, after taking the lead, Liverpool’s recent tendency to rest on a led, and fail to really take control of a match when the opportunity presents itself, resurfaced. With Fernando Torres still unavailable and Steven Gerrard clearly not fully fit, Benitez’s decision to leave the likes of Yossi Benayoun, Alberto Aquilani and Albert Reira on the bench for the majority, left Liverpool lacking players who either demand possession of the ball or have the ability to use it effectively. This was the main contributory factor allowing the Blues to dominate possession for large periods of the match.
Liverpool were forced to rely on a solid defensive display and limited themselves to only occasional threats on Howard’s goal. Gerrard tested Howard in the first half, Emiliano Insua was the surprise candidate to force the Everton stopper into an excellent save from Glen Johnson’s perfect cross, and Riera came close late on after the second goal. Other than that the visitors created little.
Although Everton too were restricted to little in the way of goal chances themselves. After Bilyaletdinov’s miscue the home side began to assert their influence. David Moyes’s men twice had the ball in Reina’s net in the opening half, however Jo was clearly offside on both occasions. Reina almost appeared to let a 57th minute Steven Pienaar effort slip from his grasp having saved comfortably. But the Spanish stopper was not genuinely tested until 70th minute, when forced into a truly world class double save. Reina’s contribution when saving at close range, first from Tim Cahill, and then from Maroune Fellaini in quick succession, to keep the score line at 1-0.
With the clock running down the Blues began to run short of energy and ideas. And, when Dirk Kuyt struck the crucial blow on 80 minutes, the game was won. Gerrard had an untypically quiet derby but his persistence won the ball from Tony Hibbert in the penalty area. The ball found Reira – who had been introduced for Fabio Aurelio soon after Benayoun – in space and his powerful shot could only be parried by Howard into the path of Kuyt; for the Dutchman to slot home.
The second goal triggered a sense of delight and relief within the away contingent, as Liverpool secured a third consecutive league win at Goodison Park and, more importantly, a confidence boosting three away points. This may have hardly been a classy and inspiring performance from the Reds. But under the circumstances of a Merseyside Derby, a dearth of recent form and a lack of fitness to key players, this can be viewed as a significant result. The hope now is that Rafa and his players can divert the confidence derived from this win towards overcoming some persistent problems and finally kick-start their season.