Liverpool stole a march on Everton in the chase for Champions League qualification yesterday with a victory that put the Goodison Park club's marked improvement this season into an unflattering perspective. Goals by Michael Owen - his first from open play in 10 Merseyside derbies - and Danny Murphy deservedly took them into fifth place, two points above their city rivals.
Everton finished the game with only nine men, David Weir and Gary Naysmith having each been sent off for a second bookable offence during the last nine minutes of an often bitter contest in which most of the rough stuff came from the home side. Indeed, Everton seemed so intent on winning the physical challenges, they forgot to play any football and looked inferior to Liverpool in that respect.
As expected, Everton gave Wayne Rooney his first start in one of these neighbourhood spats as Kevin Campbell's partner in attack. More surprising was Liverpool's decision to retain the three strikers, Owen, Milan Baros and Emile Heskey, they had fielded in their 2-0 win against Fulham the previous Saturday. Although Heskey played on the right of midfield, it was still a bold move.
Statistically speaking, Liverpool had every reason to come to Goodison with confidence. They had won on their previous two visits and not been beaten here for six years. The problem with that theory was the absence from the heart of the Liverpool defence of those two stalwarts, Sami Hyypia and Stephane Henchoz, because of suspension and injury respectively. The situation was exacerbated as early as the eighth minute, too, when one of the replacements, Igor Biscan, had to retire hurt with what looked to be a rib injury.
Salif Diao came on to play at right-back, while Jamie Carragher switched into the middle. It was a wonder Liverpool did not lose more players, such was the ferocity of Everton's challenges. One of them, by Campbell on Jerzy Dudek, was clearly a foul but the referee, Paul Durkin, waved play on, allowing Campbell a shot which Carragher cleared off the line.
With Durkin in such a tolerant mood, Dietmar Hamann opted for a self-protective foul when Lee Carsley lunged at him after 20 minutes. Ironically, Steven Gerrard, Liverpool's captain for the day, was booked for protesting and the free-kick moved forward 10 yards. From it, Naysmith hit a curling shot the diving Dudek did well to turn away for a corner.
Liverpool took a long time to get into the game as an attacking force but, when they did, after 31 minutes, they scored. In possession out on the left touchline, Owen suddenly burst inside Steve Watson and Joseph Yobo and beat Richard Wright with a fierce low shot inside the Everton goalkeeper's near post from the corner of the area.
Having gone in at half-time 1-0 ahead, Liverpool held on to their lead quite comfortably until the 57th minute, when David Unsworth equalised thunderously from the penalty spot. The kick had been awarded, quite rightly, for a wild and needless challenge on Naysmith by Carragher.
Liverpool regained the lead in spectacular fashion seven minutes later. When Hamann put Murphy in possession 30 yards from the Everton goal, he curled one of his trademark long-range shots in off the inside of a post.
Everton's chances of salvaging something from the match shrank when Weir, one of the seven players eventually booked in the first half - four of them in blue - was sent off eight minutes from the end for tripping Gerrard. Naysmith followed Weir to the dressing room in the last of the regulation 90 minutes for a foul on substitute El Hadji Diouf.
Everton: Wright, Yobo, Weir, Stubbs, Unsworth, Watson (Ferguson 69), Carsley, Gravesen (Gemmill 76), Naysmith, Campbell, Rooney.
Subs Not Used: Alexandersson, Li Tie, Simonsen.
Sent Off: Weir (82), Naysmith (90).
Booked: Gravesen, Naysmith, Weir, Stubbs.
Goals: Unsworth 58 pen.
Liverpool: Dudek, Carragher, Biscan (Diao 8), Traore, Riise, Heskey, Gerrard, Hamann, Murphy, Owen, Baros (Diouf 66).
Subs Not Used: Smicer, Arphexad, Cheyrou.
Booked: Gerrard, Hamann, Baros.
Goals: Owen 31, Murphy 64.
Ref: P Durkin (Dorset).
© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited