Sea of controversy sparked by three second-half red cards
SURELY not even in 160 previous encounters can the battle for supremacy on Merseyside have conjured up anything quite like this.
On a remarkable night, Everton deservedly emerged as winners only for Kevin Campbell's fourth minute goal to almost become lost in a sea of controversy sparked by three second-half red cards.
And so an enthralling match ended with the bizarre sight of Steve Staunton - in goalkeeper's shirt and gloves - watching his team-mates vainly search for an equaliser after Sander Westerveld and Franny Jeffers were dismissed for an ugly punch-up.
Steven Gerrard's subsequent dismissal two minutes into injury time for a desperate lunge on the goalscorer only heightened the unfolding feeling of disbelief.
It doesn't come much better for Everton and Walter Smith, celebrating his first derby win, than this. As much a messiah as a manager now to the hordes of Evertonians who had chanted long into the night, he watched his players win with a style that could have yielded a greater advantage.
Not only can they now boast the upper hand until the Goodison return in April, they do so looking down at their rivals from the lofty heights of sixth place in the Premiership and perhaps still dreaming of where the season might eventually lead them.
For Gerard Houllier, the game he said Liverpool dare not lose only succeeded in seeing the question marks appearing quicker than the answers. Had fortune favoured the brave then his team selection, which saw Dietmar Hamann plunged straight into the mayhem and some of his team-mates clearly not fully fit, may have reaped a reward.
But in truth Liverpool did not deserve to win and three defeats at home already has left Anfield resembling an open house rather than the fortress it once was.
As worrying for Houllier will have been the fact that his side were out-played - never mind out-muscled - when it really mattered, failing to make use of the possession they built up in the now customary second-half fightback and failing to keep their discipline.
Everton had few such problems; their search for the ball unstinting. Every time a Liverpool player found himself in a position to launch an attack, so first one blue shirt and then a second, sometimes a third, surrounded him.
Those tactics offered were no real surprise, and maybe neither anymore should the football that followed it. Swift and incisive, controlled and thoughtful, the bonus of the early goal which proved to the match-winner came even before Smith had seen his players properly ease their way into the proceedings.
But one man's meat is another man's poison and having used his programme notes to stress the importance of starting well, bearing in mind Manchester United and Leicester, Houllier's mood was once again darkened after just four minutes.
A throw in from Michael Ball, who produced a performance at left-back that may well have restored the faith in him from those who matter inside Goodison, saw Nick Barmby get the break of the ball off two defenders and find Jeffers.
He offered a touch of exquisite quality to find strike partner Campbell and with Liverpool's defence undone by Jamie Carragher's failure to push out, the striker steadied himself before side footing past Westerveld who got his hands to the effort but couldn't keep it out.
With Don Hutchison cajoling his team-mates in midfield, Everton continued in the ascendancy and Westerveld was forced to make an excellent diving save to keep out Jeffers' downward header after 18 minutes.
In comparison, Liverpool were sloppy, never keeping hold of the ball long enough to test properly test Paul Gerrard and their frustration evident in the 26th minute when Michael Owen was guilty of an awful tackle on David Weir which could so easily have been the first of the glut of dismissals which were to follow.
Having seen Hutchison leave his imprint on Hamann seconds earlier, which was also worthy of harsher treatment from referee Mike Riley, the Liverpool striker allowed the devil which lurks inside at times to rear its head after over-running the chance of a counter-attack into the path of Weir.
Launching himself two-footed, Owen caught his rival on the top of thigh and left the Scot writhing in agony on the turf and Archie Knox and the rest of the Everton bench in fury on the touchline.
Fortunate to escape with only a yellow card, it was to prove another intensely frustrating evening for Owen, who is still searching for his first derby goal in five matches. He found little leeway in another marvellous performance from Richard Gough - how Houllier must wish he could call upon the veteran - while Ball, Richard Dunne and the unsung Weir were all rock-solid alongside him.
The only chink of light for Owen came on 38 minutes when Paul Gerrard failed to deal with Robbie Fowler's shot and as Gough hesitated, he nipped in only for Ball's shoulder barge to knock him out of the way. Non-plussed by appeals for a penalty, referee Riley waved play on and Everton reached the interval their lead intact.
Perhaps in the belief the players he had put so much faith in could only get better, Houllier resisted making changes at the break but could easily have found the game out of reach five minutes into the second half.
While Jeffers had excelled with an quick-witted, hungry display, darting in and out of the shadows to torment and harrass his markers, before half-time, so he demonstrated immediately afterwards that there remain enough rough edges to his game to ensure his feet stay on the ground.
Having twice lacked the composure to take advantage of more wayward positioning from Liverpool's rearguard, Jeffers was left to hold his head in his hands after 50 minutes when Hutchison's pass sent him racing clear of Carragher only for the youngster to drag his shot wide of the exposed Westerveld.
With the miss still weighing on his mind, he was then guilty of gifting possession to Fowler who saw the presents continue as Weir slipped in front of him, but he chose to plough a lone furrow and ignore the claims of Owen to his right. Indicative of his side's early play, it proved the wrong option as Gerrard comfortably pulled his drive into his mid-riff.
Confirmation that Houllier's plan had not worked came on 64 minutes when Hamann and Fowler were replaced by Steven Gerrard and Erik Meijer, shortly followed by the introduction of Titi Camara for Vladimir Smicer, who had been a peripheral figure throughout and has yet to adapt to the differing demands of English football.
Camara can certainly feel aggrieved to have been left out of the starting line-up and Liverpool's missed the directness his pace can bring and which Smith had been justifiably weary of beforehand.
While allowing Liverpool to build up a head of steam, the changes made little real difference as Everton continued to defend resolutely in the face of an all too predictable onslaught which never brought any clear-cut chances.
Proving there is no show without punch, the drama heightened on 75 minutes when Jeffers and Westerveld, who had clashed in the first half with the Dutch keeper accusing the striker of diving, were red-carded.
The pair traded half-hearted blows inside the penalty area after Jeffers, who was flagged offside by a linesman, had collided with the keeper chasing a throughball.
Staunton took over in goal and produced an excellent tip over from Portuguese international Abel Xavier after watching Meijer and Jamie Redknapp both bring out the best in Gerrard.
It was the Everton keeper's younger namesake, Steven, who was next to see red in the second minute of injury time - cutting Campbell in half with a high challenge that left Mr Riley only too eager to add the midfielder's name to the roll of shame.
LIVERPOOL (4-4-2): Westerveld, Heggem, Hyypia, Carragher, Staunton; Smicer (Camara 70), Hamann (Gerrard 64), Redknapp, Berger; Fowler (Meijer 64), Owen. Subs: Nielsen, Henchoz
EVERTON (4-4-2): Gerrard P., Dunne, Weir, Gough, Ball, Xavier, Hutchison, Collins, Barmby; Jeffers, Campbell. Subs: Cleland, Gemmill, Ward, Johnson, Simonsen.
BOOKINGS: Staunton (18), Redknapp (23), Owen (27), Ball (36) all fouls, Gough (time-wasting 80).
SENDING-OFFS: Westerveld, Jeffers (violent conduct 75), Gerrard (serious foul play 90).
REFEREE: Mr M Riley (Rotherham).
Match report by Paul Joyce - Copyright Liverpool Daily Post