A Steven Gerrard treble inspired Liverpool to a Merseyside Derby victory over Everton; providing a timely shot in the arm for a season which had been running the risk of imploding in recent weeks, in spite of any cup triumph.
This was only Liverpool’s third victory in the Premier League this calendar year and their first league win at Anfield since 30 December. Yet this was a drastically improved display; one which, for once, combined some dominant, attacking football with a cutting-edge in front of goal.
Although, that aforementioned ‘cutting-edge’ came largely courtesy of captain, Gerrard. He became the first player to score a hat-trick in a Merseyside Derby since Ian Rush’s 4 goals in 1986 – and the first Liverpool player in a fixture at Anfield since 1932.
Although this victory will only go a limited way towards harnessing concerns over recent poor performances and a lack of quality within certain areas of the current Liverpool squad, it remains significant nonetheless.
There has never been any doubt over the quality of one man in a Liverpool shirt, at least. It was that man Steven Gerrard who proved the definitive factor in the end; however there were plenty of other encouraging displays from men in red – in some cases, arguably more so.
The combination of Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll caught the eye. Suarez was tenacious and a persistent menace to the Everton defence; providing the ground work for both the second and third goals. Whilst, Carroll was dominant in the air and used the ball intelligently. They impressed to the extent that there can be little counter-argument to the assertion that Carroll and Suarez should remain a fixture in this Liverpool starting XI between now and the end of the season; particularly considering the Reds recent travails at the business end of the pitch.
This was only the third occasion that the pair have ever featured alongside Gerrard in the same starting line-up – and the first time in a league game. The improvement was clear for all to see. However, the players around them deserve equal credit for providing the foundation for a comfortable win.
Martin Kelly produced a display at right-back which could only have been bettered by an improvement in front of goal. Kelly had a chance to opening the scoring when he was played into space inside the penalty area, following a clever one-two with Jordan Henderson, but shot across the face of goal and narrowly wide. He was also close in the second half when he failed to connect with a chance only slightly less inviting than a similar one he had against Arsenal. But, aside from that, Kelly excelled in both attack and defence.
Jay Spearing offered the kind of bite in midfield which is so important in these games. The partnership of Spearing and Gerrard in certainly far more balanced and effective than a combination of either of the two with Charlie Adam – who was relegated to the substitute’s bench. Whilst, Jamie Carragher, Martin Skrtel and Jose Enrique ensured that Pepe Reina was under-worked all evening.
Liverpool’s cause was perhaps enhanced by the surprisingly high number of changes which were resided over by David Moyes. The Everton manager decided to omit the likes of Nikica Jelavic, Tim Cahill and Leon Osman, amongst others, probably with this weekend’s FA Cup quarter-finals in mind. But this was an in-form Everton team nonetheless; and a game which could easily have drifted towards the kind of frustration and stalemate which has been so prevalent at Anfield this season. That is, if Gerrard and co had not intervened.
The limited threat of Denis Stracquelersi and Victor Anichebe gave the home defence little cause for concern. In fact, there was a sense of inevitability about Liverpool’s victory from the moment that Gerrard had scored the opener on 31 minutes; despite the introduction of Jelavic and others early in the second half.
This was far from a typical derby game. The ferocious challenges and fouls were largely negated in favour of more free-flowing football. The Reds were in the ascendancy from the early stages and – bar a few periods of Everton pressure – they had control over the game.
Yet, that dominance has to be converted into goals – as Liverpool are all too aware. Gerrard forced Tim Howard into a fine save early on, whilst Henderson squandered the rebound. Howard denied Suarez soon afterwards and Steven Pienaar also shot wastefully over the bar when well-positioned for the Blues.
Kelly then sent his shot wide. But Liverpool soon had the lead which their play deserved; and Kelly was involved again. Some nice build-up play found the young full-back in space, cutting in from the right. Howard saved his shot but allowed the ball to get away from him; it reached Gerrard, who showed great vision and composure to lift the ball over the goalkeeper and into the top corner.
The single goal margin remained at the break; but the Reds had doubled their advantage soon after half-time. Suarez was the architect. An incisive ball from Henderson set up the move; the defence splitting pass released Suarez, who slalomed his way in from the touch-line but left the shot to an onrushing Gerrard. The skipper’s powerful drive gave Howard no hope.
Carroll and Kelly both went close to furthering the advantage but failed to test the Everton ‘keeper. Whilst, at the opposite end, Enrique had to be alert to block a Jack Rodwell shot, which could have made for an undeservedly tense finish for the Reds.
With the victory since secured, Gerrard completed his hat-trick in stoppage-time. Royston Drenthe’s slip in possession allowed Liverpool to capitalise on a stretched Everton defence on the counter-attack. Suarez punished the Blues; running the ball into the box and, rather than shooting himself, unselfishly rolling the ball to a better-positioned Gerrard, who was afforded the simplest of tasks for his third goal.
This was certainly a vast improvement from Liverpool. But it will require much more of the same, both in terms of performance levels and personnel, if they are to convince all that any doubts have been unfounded.
MAN OF THE MATCH: STEVEN GERRARD
Difficult to overlook a hat-trick and all round performance from Gerrard. Although, there were many other impressive displays.