by Anthony Jones at Talklfc
Having run up eight consecutive victories, Liverpool entered the Merseyside derby as the form side. However, the old saying would have you believe that form is irrelevant in these fixtures and sometimes that is true. However for Everton to negate the kind of recent form the two sides were in, they would need to improve significantly.
Rafa Benitez entered this game by making a handful of changes which probably owed a little to keeping players fresh over the busy Christmas period and also partly due to the opposition faced. Warnock came in at left back to add a bit of local fire to the side, Sissoko replaced Garcia to add muscle in the centre of the park and Djibril Cisse was given a rare start, no doubt with the advice to run at David Weir whenever possible.
With Everton lining up with five in midfield, it was always going to be a hard game to get the upperhand in. Given the freezing conditions, it seemed strange that the pitch was watered an hour before kick off, and the hard ground made a clear impact both on the bounce of the ball and the way in which both teams committed to tackles.
The opening exchanges saw Liverpool create the first real opportunity, though it was Everton who carried the territorial advantage. Much of Everton's play was aimed high into the Liverpool box. Once in there Beattie and Kevin Kilbane were fighting for everything as Carragher and Hyypia were not at their commanding best. Kilbane in particular was causing problems for the defence as he regularly isolated Finnan on the far post. Everton won a number of throw ins wide of the eighteen yard box and this added to the aerial bombardment on the Liverpool goal as Phil Neville looked to use his long throw. At the other end, a corner from wide out was delivered into the box where Djibril Cisse lurked deep inside the area. Unfortunately for the striker the ball was just behind him and whilst he caught his volley well, he was unable to drag it on target.
For all their efforts though, Everton were quickly undone at the other end as Liverpool showed the gulf in class. A long ball forward from Reina was aimed at Cisse who failed to challenge for the initial header. However the defensive clearance went as far as Gerrard who played the ball back into Cisse. His touch was good but was delivered high giving Gerrard few options, what he did with it was brilliant. With Peter Crouch timing his run in behind the Everton defence brilliantly, Gerrard cleverly headed the ball forwards when it was clearly easier for him to take the touch. The header found the run of Crouch who showed that his confidence is high by waiting for the keeper to go down before slotting the ball home.
Liverpool were suddenly rampant and playing some lovely football. A move which saw Hyypia cleverly flick the ball out wide to Finnan suddenly ended in a goal when Martyn's punched clearance landed at the feet of Gerrard. Twenty five yards out from goal the midfielder skipped inside past one defender and launched a shot goalwards that may have taken a slight touch off Yobo and flew into the back of the net. Up to that point Goodison had been full of noise as the Everton fans rallied behind their players, the second goal killed the mood. With confidence flowing, Liverpool started to surge forward and looked like they might score with every attack. Gerrard was driving his side forward and chances came and went. Cisse who was offering himself up more than he has done in the past found space down the inside right channel and with the ball supplied to him he could have ended the contest only for his shot to be blasted over when a little more composure was possibly needed. There were also shots peppered at Martyn's goal from midfield though none carried the threat that Gerrard's had. Cisse also found room in the box to get on the end of a well delivered cross from wide only to flash his header across goal, possibly looking to add too much power when direction was needed.
Everton countered the increasing threat of their local rivals by abandoning the five man midfield and pushing Cahill futher forward. The move had the desired affect as it allowed Everton to press the play more which pushed Liverpool out of their stride. For all their threat in the short period after the second goal, Liverpool had never quite been fluid in their play. Sissoko had been guilty of sloppy passing on a couple of occasions, whilst none of the players had really stood out with the exception of Gerrard. Suddenly there was a little hope for Everton though their play lacked the quality with which Liverpool had so far undone them with.
The slightly lethargic mood started to catch on amongst the Liverpool players and Everton suddenly carved open a chance. Cahill moved wide and delivered a cross from the byline which found Beattie. Before he could head the ball goalwards, the whistle went and Reina clearly stopped as Beattie put the ball in the back of the net. Everton were annoyed as they felt the ball had not crossed the line before Cahill's cross, a view which seemed to be backed up by television pictures. It may not have brought the goal they craved but it lifted the spirit and with time running out in the half, Everton broke Liverpool's impressive run of games without conceding. A ball deep into the box again found Kilbane above Finnan who headed inside to Davies. Rafa Benitez will be disappointed not at losing the first header but the fact that Everton then won the next two balls relatively easily. Davies hooked the ball over his shoulder where Beattie managed to guide a header goalwards and past the helpless Reina.
Suddenly the derby was alive again and David Moyes had something to build on in his half time team talk. He will however be frustrated at how easily it was unpicked. Within the first minute of the second half, Liverpool were again two goals ahead. A poor pass from Phil Neville down the Liverpool left allowed Kewell to hook the ball forward to where Cisse had been given the freedom of the city by the Everton defence. Moving forward at pace he had travelled from half way to the edge of the eighteen yard box before David Weir could get across. Cisse got the requisite break of the ball when he challenged Weir who put in a tired tackle, there was no good fortune with the finish though. From a wide angle on the left Cisse opened up his body and guided the ball around the keeper and into the far corner of the net. Everton once more was quiet but for the noise from the small group of away fans.
With the goal cushion back in place, Liverpool again eased off a little, though without the recklessness of the previous half. Gerrard who was probably man of the match as one of the few who consistently stood out had an opportunity to make it four when he received the ball from Alonso. With Valente failing to close him down, Gerrard had time to pick his spot and his powerful drive was only just wide.
Everton continued to work hard but could not do enough to get back into the game. With frustrations boiling over, Graham Poll suddenly became a little card happy. Phil Neville was sent off with just over twenty minutes remaining for two bookings whilst Arteta followed in the closing seconds for the same offence. The individual incidents seem harsh, but both probably suffered from persistent offending, in Neville's case one too many foul tackles, whilst Arteta was a constant dissenting voice in the ears of the officials. It adds to the mounting problems for Everton whilst Liverpool march on. This was some way short of a convincing victory, yet at no point did Liverpool look like they'd take anything less than three points. Rafa Benitez will no doubt have issues he'll want to iron out in the side and it demonstrates the increasing high standards that such a comfortable result was not greeted with total satisfaction by the manager at the end. The quest for perfection continues.
Despite the negative points, Liverpool will be happy in the way they killed off the opposition here. Liverpool have not only found the way to score goals since their recent upturn in form, but have also unearthed the ability to score them when they really matter. Djibril Cisse's performance was noticeable for the lack of histrionics and improved team play and he will no doubt be challenged by his manager to play like that more regularly. His strike partner Crouch also continued to demonstrate he is worth his transfer fee as he scored his sixth goal in as many games and stood up to the physical challenge well. Others contributed without ever finding anything like their best form, but it was Steven Gerrard who once more was the standard bearer for the side.