LIVERPOOL NEED not have worried, if worry they did, in advance of the 165th Merseyside derby. At the noon kick-off, this looked just the sort of fixture they did not want at this point in a sticky start to the season. But, long before the end of a decidedly unequal struggle, it had become the most comfortable of victories.
After two successive Premiership defeats and an unimpressive opening draw in the Champions League, Liverpool needed a trip across Stanley Park like a hole in the head. Traditionally, or in recent times at least, Everton play above themselves in these tribal conflicts; but yesterday they rarely got off the ground. Despite taking an early lead through Kevin Campbell by exploiting the continuing uncertainty of Liverpool's central defence, the Blues were utterly incapable of overcoming the Reds. Their encouraging start to the season had hinted at better times to come, but their basic lack of quality clearly remains a serious problem.
It was systematically exposed by the greater skill and deeper resources of their neighbours. Having recovered from the shock of going a goal down after only five minutes, Liverpool proceeded to take control by imposing their familiar passing game on the opposition. Consequently, they were level after 12 minutes and ahead by the half-hour.
The equaliser was another thrilling example of the power and accuracy of Steven Gerrard's shooting and the second goal was tucked away from the penalty spot by Michael Owen. Although the statistics of Owen's scoring prowess - this was his 13th goal of an infant season - continue to make the head spin, he was overshadowed yesterday by the grandeur of Gerrard's remarkable all-round game.
Rarely has English football witnessed an Englishman who can do so many things with a football so well. At 21, the young Liverpool midfielder has just about all the qualities for which a player could ask. He is quick and strong, he possesses great vision, he can pass the ball with devastating accuracy over five yards or 50, his feet often mesmerise and he hits a shot with stunning force. Best of all, he seems to be overcoming the physical problems that have hindered his progress in the recent past.
Anxious, no doubt, not to increase Gerrard's hat size, Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier neatly sidestepped all questions about the young England international's electrifying performance. Instead, Houllier preferred to laud the quality of the team effort and to stress the importance of the result for his side.
"I know it's not a period when you can express your joy and pleasure," he said, with a reference to the tragic events in New York and Washington that were marked here by a minute's silence and the laying of wreaths by the captains on the American and British flags before the start, "but I must admit that, despite the circumstances, I'm happy we've done well here today. This was an important game for us. When you look at the table, look at the start we've had, everybody was aware that, never mind the derby, we had to get a result. Some of the players were saying it could kick-start our season."
When Campbell, though, collected Duncan Ferguson's headed flick-on, turned Sami Hyypia quite beautifully and drove the ball past Jerzy Dudek not long after a packed house had settled in their seats, it looked very much as if Liverpool had not shaken off their early-season blues. Steven Gerrard was clearly determined it should not work out that way, however.
Pouncing on a poor headed clearance just outside the Everton penalty area, the young Scouser accelerated smoothly outside the startled Gary Naysmith and hammered a cross-shot into the far corner so violently that his namesake in Everton's goal, Paul Gerrard, scarcely had time to move.
The goalkeeper fared better, getting his right hand to the missile, when Liverpool's Gerrard tried to replicate his scoring shot from the same spot to the right of goal late in the first half. But Gerrard P went completely the wrong way for the penalty Owen sidefooted into the bottom corner after David Unsworth had brought Emile Heskey down.
Just before the interval, as Liverpool counter-attacked with a lethal burst of passing, Didi Hamann wasted a very good chance to wrap it up.
The coup de grace was delayed only until the seventh minute of the second half, however. Taking a pass from the industrious and creative Danny Murphy, Liverpool's young Norwegian, John Arne Riise, ran half the length of the pitch before turning Steve Watson and steering a third goal past Paul Gerrard.
Liverpool seemed to lose some interest after that and, strangely, as Everton manager Walter Smith observed, the home side created a number of scoring chances despite not playing particularly well.
Although there was some encouragement for Smith in the greater variety substitute Paul Gascoigne brought to Everton's play in the second half, the manager was not afraid to be brutally realistic about the afternoon's events. "When you give away two goals as we did and then don't take your own chances," he said, "you can't have any complaints about losing."
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