In the wake of Liverpool’s draw to Everton this afternoon it’s hard not to be overcome by a wave of disappointment at the team’s failure, for the second game running, to hang onto a hard-fought lead. The reds were ahead after a blistering first half but Everton took advantage of the home side’s complacency early in the second, and it was a blow from which Liverpool never fully recovered.
But after the initial frustration of an anticlimactic comeback, the positives begin to reveal themselves. Certainly, the day of Dalglish’s return to Anfield shouldn’t be a day of disappointment for Liverpool fans, whatever the final score. Instead, this day is a turning point: one of significant, if subtle, progress.
In a season where victories have become increasingly difficult for the reds to secure, each and every point has become valuable, none more so than today’s. With the exception of Liverpool’s seven-minute capitulation in the second half, where they surrendered the position they had worked immensely hard to achieve, the team performed with spirit and showed vast signs of improvement compared to the lacklustre displays that have characterised the season so far. They showed heart to hang on after going behind and their efforts were rewarded with the penalty; the only shame is that they couldn’t recoup enough strength to push on towards victory.
This response alone is evidence enough of the effect Dalglish has begun to have on the team, giving them the mentality to fight in the face of adversity.
Whilst the team may have been below their best as the minutes faded away, it shows something that they at least managed to pull themselves back into the match. You don’t have to look further than a few days ago to the performance against Blackpool to see the development in the players’ attitudes; on that day, they had all but given up on the game the minute Blackpool drew level. Against Everton, going behind only spurred them on: the team knew they had to make amends.
As usual, Fernando Torres, being the most high-profile player on the pitch, is a perfect embodiment of this renewed energy and spirit. He is a far cry from the sluggish, sulking player that began the season, and the vigour with which he is currently playing is reminiscent of Spaniard at his majestic best, where he can score from anywhere at any moment, turning the game on its head with one flick of his boot. Indeed, midway through the first half he almost did just that as his curling left-footed shot cracked off the post after an astounding turn in the box that left Everton’s defence utterly helpless.
But it was not just Torres that showed character today. As you would expect, hard tackles came from numerous sources – a memorable one coming from Jay Spearing, who infused the match with more than an ounce of Scouse passion – and not one of the players allowed their heads to simply drop. Martin Kelly continues to impress in defence and if his blitzing run down the right flank early in the first half is anything to go by, we won’t be seeing Johnson in that position again for quite some time. Of all Liverpool’s youth prospects, Kelly certainly looks the one with the most obvious long-term potential.
The biggest positive for Liverpool, though, was their first half performance. Had they carried that momentum into the second half then the scoreline would have been a different prospect entirely. The reds bossed the half from start to finish and looked on course for a resounding victory after Meireles’ first goal for the club gave them a deserved lead and a real foothold in the game. Everton were forced to endure wave after wave of Liverpool attack until the breakthrough finally came, and the reds looked more than comfortable at the interval. If anything, they had the right to feel short-changed with just the one goal after they regretfully failed to take a host of other chances.
But whilst the team didn’t live up to the first half’s potential, what that period shows is the talent the squad does possess, even with two of its talismanic figures missing. On another day the reds would have gone into the break on the back of a larger lead and the game would have been sealed, but that’s football and not every chance can be taken.
With every passing derby fans and the media alike attribute a new significance to the game, as though it has taken on more importance than ever. It seems like every year the stakes have been raised, with each derby being given a theme, something to remember it by. This year’s example, with both clubs struggling, saw the match jokingly billed as a relegation clash, a six-pointer that held immediate consequences for the fate of each club’s season. This may be somewhat over-the-top – though with the reds sitting just four points above the relegation zone it’s not as far-fetched an idea as it may once have seemed – but it certainly gave the players an extra incentive to perform to the best of their ability. There was no more room for error: it was now or never.
What Liverpool must do, then, is to remember that feeling: remember the passion and the pressure, remember the intimidation and the intensity. The players have shown that they are capable, and now anything less than their best is simply not good enough. With every passing game the stakes get higher; the consequences of defeat become more severe. They must show strength, heart and character, and play as though their lives depend on it.
Liverpool must approach every forthcoming game as though they contain this level of importance; as though they are a derby, or a cup final… or both. It may seem hard to imagine how a trip to Wolves should motivate the team in this way, but that’s the situation the club finds itself in. Three points there are as significant a three points as there will be all season, and whilst they do not represent the same value as a trophy, at the moment they aren’t that far away, either.