Kenny Dalglish is still awaiting his first win in his second spell as Liverpool manager after Liverpool were held to a 2-2 draw in the Merseyside derby.
The old cliché, ‘A game of two halves’, has rarely been so apt. The Reds played some very encouraging football in a first half which they dominated for large periods and probably should have been two or three goals clear at the interval.
However a far inferior second half, in which their lead was turned into a deficit in the opening 7 minutes through two quick-fire Everton goals, meant that a 68th minute penalty from Dirk Kuyt was requird to rescue a point.
The buzz of expectation and anticipation pre-kickoff was as great as it has been for any Anfield derby match in years. This being the first home game since Dalglish’s return to the Anfield dugout, added an extra spice to the latest meeting with the near neighbours.
And the action on the pitch matched the anticipation in the stands. A high-energy, high-intensity encounter between two sides who were equally as desperate for all of the points but ultimately had to settle for once apiece. Entertainment aplenty for the neutral. But that will come as little consolation for Liverpool fans, as yet another game passes without a much needed win.
Off the back of their dreadful recent form, this was seen as an opportunity for the Reds to halt the downward spiral of their season and for Dalglish to finally stamp his mark on the team. But the manager will have been left with the bitter taste of disappointment at the final whistle. The Reds having surrendered such a strong position – taking the lead and dominating the early exchanges – so readily at the beginning of the second half.
Dalglish took the surprise move to draft local lad, Jay Spearing, into the starting line-up, as a direct replacement for the quickly discarded Christian Poulsen. And Spearing – returning from a recent injury layoff – gave a good account of himself amongst the frantic action in midfield.
Yet it is their soft centre which is one of Liverpool’s most significant shortcomings at the present moment. A lack of strength and composure on the ball in midfield – particularly in the absence of Steven Gerrard – is a common theme.
Raul Meireles got the opening goal but his distribution was erratic and he would probably be better suited to a deepe midfield role. Whilst a combination of Lucas and Spearing is unlikely to provide the necessary ingenuity and incisive passing in the centre.
Liverpool have clearly been more committed to get men forward in the last couple of games and in the first half of this match that was particularly evident. Fernando Torres was constantly at the forefront of the attacking threat. The Spaniard genuinely does look a man transformed under Dalglish.
In fact Torres tested Tim Howard in the opening seconds. A rousing rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ had barely stopped reverberating around Anfield when the striker chasing onto Kuyt’s flick-on and forcing Howard into a comfortable save from a tight angle.
16 minutes in and Torres cranked the atmosphere up another notch, as he came within inches of breaking the deadlock. The composure demonstrated by Torres was starkly contrasted by that of Kuyt. Torres received possession under pressure, burst into the box and out-foxed Sylvain Distin, before curling his shot against the inside of the post. Kuyt blazed the rebound over the bar from 8-yards.
It was absorbing, end-to-end stuff – with Liverpool edging it. And the Reds made their superiority count on 28 minutes. Howard produced successive saves from Kuyt. First pushing away the Dutchman’s header from Glen Johnson’s left wing cross. Before blocking his follow-up effort. However the Everton ‘keeper was helpless to prevent Meireles’ drive into the roof of his net, which followed. The midfielder’s first goal in a red shirt.
Buoyed by their advantage, the Reds could and should have doubled their lead before the break. The vibrant Torres tested Howard again. Maxi Rodriguez headed over from a good position. And Meireles went close again, having been played in by Torres.
Yet, within the opening minutes of the second half Liverpool’s lead had capitulated. The Reds minds must have still been back in the changing rooms, as the Blues struck twice to spark the away support into life.
Liverpool had arguments for both goals and the loss of Daniel Agger to illness at half-time – replaced by Sotirios Kyrgiakos – may have been another mitigating factor. But there is no getting away from defensive frailties which were exposed.
The equaliser, in the opening minute of the second period, came from a corner that should not have been. Kuyt saw the ball out of play after Jermaine Beckford got the final touch. Even still the delivery into the box should have been dealt with. Martin Skrtel has been in the spotlight lately and he was out-muscled by Distin. Distin’s far-post header finding the net despite Johnson’s best efforts on the line.
Minutes later and Everton astonishingly had the lead. Again there was controversy. The impressive Martin Kelly went down under a heavy challenge from Victor Anichebe. Whether Phil Dowd saw it as a foul or not, it was a head injury and so play probably should have been halted.
Play continued though. Beckford was granted far too much space in the box and gladly drove Anichebe’s flick-on beyond Reina.
With David Moyes’ team revived after the interval it was yet another rescue mission for the Reds. On this occasion they mustered an equaliser. Kuyt was the beneficiary with 20 minutes remaining.
Howard may have kept his team in the game in the first half. But the American clattered into Maxi in the 6-yard box and a penalty – which even Moyes agreed with – was awarded. Kuyt sent Howard the wrong way to restore parity.
Neither side was able to produce any telling quality in the closing stages. Dalglish seems to be a fan of Jonjo Shelvey. The youngster was once again his first tactical change. What message that sends to Joe Cole and Ryan Babel sitting on the bench I am not sure.
So honours even in the 215th Merseyside Derby. Everton still await their first win in a Merseyside derby at Anfield this Millennium. Both sides left fustrated – the Reds in particular, after an excellent first half.
So were now for Dalglish and this Liverpool team? The simple answer for the manager is to start building confidence and string together a run of positive results with the players he has at his disposal. There were positives to take from this stalemate – not least the obvious improvement of Torres – and this result at least ends a reun of recent defeats.
But it is two men watching in the stands who should have learnt most from this exercise. John Henry and Tom Werner will now be well aware of the scale of the re-building job facing them at Anfield. There is, no doubt, still some quality in this team. But what Is needed is urgent investment in more genuine quality to supplement the quality already available.
Man of the Match
The Spaniard’s recent performances – and this one in particular – have been his best in 12 months or more. Little coincidence that this has coincided with Dalglish’s arrival. Kelly and Maxi also contenders.