Benitez slur raises Everton hackles and is as short of guile as his team

Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr touch down on Merseyside today and, given the bitter aftertaste left by the 205th local spat, Liverpool will be glad to have the sweetener of a £470m takeover to look forward to. Any faint hopes of mounting a belated title challenge evaporated amid livid frustration here and it says everything about the hosts' spluttering display that the closest they came to unnerving Everton was through Rafael Benítez's incendiary accusation that the neighbours are "a small club".

The repercussions of that mischievous comment still smoulder today, the city split as furiously as when David Moyes dared to tag Everton "The Peoples' Club" on his arrival five years ago. The tone expressed by Evertonians on phone-ins and, indeed, across the city has been one of outrage, that the Spaniard's remarks were at best misguided and, at worst, disgraceful. Benítez would admit that his English is still a work in progress but, if initially it appeared that he was merely referring to Everton's current status lower down the league ladder, this was actually no slip of the tongue.

Benítez first referred to Moyes' club as being smaller in his pre-match briefing last week, then repeated it in television, radio and other interviews in the wake of Saturday's infuriating stalemate. He is canny enough to realise the weight his words carry and, when put in that context, his comments appeared nothing but inflammatory, even if the spark of debate was appreciated after the mishmash served up on the pitch.

It takes very little to whip fans into a frenzy of anger and the visitors' reaction was predictable. Their chief executive, Keith Wyness, claimed Benítez was "in a minority of one in believing Everton is, in any respect, a small football club". Alan Stubbs, outstanding in a game he so often relishes, was as forthright. "You're going to be bitter when you've not had a result," he said. "You can always turn round and say you're misquoted or whatever but, at the end of the day, you know what you're talking about."

There are as many arguments to justify as vilify his put-down. Liverpool are consistently in the top four, the European champions of 2005 and on the verge of a multi-million pound takeover. The knock-on effect of that will bolster Benítez's transfer budget, so Everton - along with 16 other Premiership clubs - really are floundering in their wake. Indeed, until Moyes boasts the spending power to add more players of the calibre of Andrew Johnson (£8.6m) and Joleon Lescott (£5m) on a regular basis, Everton will continue to shiver in their neighbours' shadow with relative ambitions to reflect as much.

Yet there is also a disingenuousness to Benítez that does him no credit. His criticism of Everton had been that they came to Anfield intent upon securing a point, "playing deep, compact, narrow, on the counter-attack, always hoping we would make a mistake". Yet these are tactics the Spaniard has employed when visiting Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and Highbury, and presumably a game-plan he will replicate at Camp Nou in the Champions League later this month.

Barcelona will hardly be braced to host an expansive, attack-minded Liverpool. "I'd be happy with 0-0 in that match," admitted Benítez before adding, "but we have a lot of players with offensive mentalities. Normally, we try to play compact, deep and well organised away from home but creating chances, not waiting for the other team to make a mistake."

What was inescapable was the manner in which his team ran aground against an Everton side who played precisely as the hosts had anticipated. Pummelling long balls up to Peter Crouch when Stubbs and Joseph Yobo were so comfortable in the air was a Liverpool failing, the inability of Jermaine Pennant to skip beyond Lescott - a centre-half playing at left-back - indicative of their lack of penetration. "We weren't very precise," conceded Benítez.

For that Everton deserve credit. The visitors defended doggedly and emerged having gleaned four points from their rivals this term. Johnson might have achieved a first league double for them in 22 years had Jamie Carragher and José Reina not suffocated the game's best opening. What Benítez would have made of a first home Premiership defeat of the season does not bear contemplation.

As it was, Everton departed apparently peering from the moral high ground. "Everton are one of the big clubs in England," added Moyes. "We are, at this present time, smaller than Liverpool but, if Rafa had been managing Everton, I think he'd have tried to do a similar job today. It would just be nice for these managers to show a bit of humility, wouldn't it?"

Man of the match Alan Stubbs

This may prove to have been his last Merseyside derby and, if so, he stamped his mark on it. He did not fluff one header.

Best moment The fine interception to deny Kuyt with 13 minutes remaining.

Match Facts

FT Liverpool 0-0 Everton
11' Osman
73' Neville
81' Arteta

Jose Manuel Reina, Daniel Agger, Jamie Carragher, Steve Finnan, Xabi Alonso, Steven Gerrard, Jermaine Pennant, John Arne Riise, Craig Bellamy (Robbie Fowler), Peter Crouch, Dirk Kuyt

Tim Howard, Tony Hibbert, Joleon Lescott, Phil Neville, Alan Stubbs, Joseph Ikpo Yobo, Mikel Amatriain Arteta, Tim Cahill, Lee Carsley, Leon Osman, Andrew Johnson (Victor Anichebe)

Referee: Wiley, A

Venue: Anfield

Attendance: 44,234

Liverpool 6
Everton 4

Goal Attempts:
Liverpool 25
Everton 6

On Target:
Liverpool 10
Everton 4

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007

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