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Blues miss golden chance to end winless Anfield streak

IT took one man steeped in Everton history to show what it takes to win a Merseyside derby.

In the opening seconds of the 213th increasingly fractious neighbourly dispute, one moment set the tone for what was to follow.

Unfortunately, the player responsible for that definitive instant has long since switched faiths and was wearing a red shirt.

Jamie Carragher’s bone-shuddering, no holds-barred challenge on Steven Pienaar almost straight after Martin Atkinson’s whistle was a line drawn in the sand. It suggested that Everton’s opponents, derided for having fallen far from their former grace this season, were in the mood for a tussle.

A tussle is a hopelessly understated way of describing the ensuing war of attrition which resulted between two teams who historically pride themselves on playing good football.

The conjecture beforehand had rightly suggested it was the Toffees best opportunity of winning at Anfield in 11 years.

Everton were the side in the compelling form, and confidence was quietly bubbling under in the blue half of the city ahead of Saturday.

But to the ultimate dismay of every Evertonian, Carragher’s challenge was an omen which could not be swept aside regardless of circumstances.

Neutral observers may have considered Sotirios Kyrgiakos red card for a gruesome tackle on Marouane Fellaini to have swung the encounter in Everton’s favour.

Surely, the team in superior form would have capitalised on the advantage handed to them by the Greek’s rashness?

In fact it was Everton who suffered most from the flashpoint. Fellaini bravely tried to soldier on after receiving treatment on the touchline, but as he attempted to limp back onto the pitch he broke down.

Shorn of the player who has symbolized their recent resurgence, Everton struggled.

Ironically, the 22-year-old Belgian was beginning to assert himself on the game before his afternoon was prematurely ended.

Instead, David Moyes was forced to throw Mikel Arteta, still barely match fit, into the manic frenzy of a derby as his game plan was dealt a fatal blow.

It was no mistake that Liverpool targeted Pienaar and Fellaini with such venom. In between flirting with Juventus, their much-maligned manager had done his homework. The mercurial South African and the enigmatic Belgian are a double act to be reckoned with. And Liverpool knew it.

Flying out of the traps like a Kopite version of Joe Royle’s ‘Dogs of War’, they nobbled both of them.

Of course Everton are an outfit who pride themselves on a proud team spirit, and they did not daintily sit back. As the game swung in the balance, skipper Phil Neville body checked Steven Gerrard to give away a dangerous free-kick which Tim Howard punched robustly. Emiliano Insua dispatched the rebound into The Kop.

Then Dirk Kuyt halted a promising forward burst by Landon Donovan and conceded a free-kick 25 yards out. Leighton Baines’ curling effort was heading for the top corner and Pepe Reina had to be alert to tip it over the bar.

While the injury to Fellaini was key, it would be remiss to gloss over an earlier tackle which was even worse than the one committed by Liverpool’s Greek defender.

Pienaar was still smarting from his brutal body-check from Carragher when he left his foot dangerously high in a challenge on Javier Mascherano.

The Argentine is no innocent, and had already made a cynical tackle of his own, but he was fortunate to avoid serious injury, and Pienaar was fortunate to stay on the pitch.

Carragher saw yellow for a clumsy attempt at retribution moments later, but it signalled the hunger in the red camp.

Everton almost went behind when Gerrard teed up David Ngog and the young Frenchman flashed his effort just wide, deterred by a crucial Leon Osman block.

Following the turning point which was the red card and Fellaini’s injury, a lull followed. For a while, the actual game, as both sides played with 10 men, was a sideshow to the outrage of both sets of supporters.

Then Gerrard went to ground under a challenge from Tim Cahill, to win a free-kick 30 yards from goal. The England vice-captain’s resultant effort beat the wall and clipped the top of the bar.

But the chance of the half undoubtedly fell to Cahill. Following swift interplay between Baines and Pienaar, the ball was flicked wide to Donovan who fired a cross into the box and the Aussie’s diving header flew inches over.

If the Everton talisman, so often a thorn in Liverpool’s side, had managed to keep his header low, the lead may well have deflated the opposition’s siege spirit.

Instead, the half-time break saw a stalemate which served the home side better. Somehow, Everton failed to create any significant chances in the second-half despite their numerical advantage.

Indeed it was Liverpool who went closest, when Ngog just outstripped Sylvain Distin for pace, but the centre-half’s last-ditch block was enough to make his countryman skew his shot wide.

Unfortunately, it was an omen of what was to come. Everton had hoped to threaten a Liverpool rearguard which is susceptible to set-pieces.

But it was Benitez’s men who won a corner, and inexplicably Tim Howard and Phil Neville conspired to let Dirk Kuyt squeeze an improbable header into the back of the net.

Wounded, Everton were stung into action and Donovan did well to force a corner with a tricky run into the box. Yet the Blues struggled to spark any creativity and barely resembled the side which almost beat Arsenal at The Emirates and humbled Manchester City in such style.

In November’s Goodison derby, the Blues lost three points but gained a burning sense of injustice which fired them onto a nine-game unbeaten run.

But as substitutes Yakubu, who looked rusty, and Victor Anichebe failed to make an impact on the game, it became increasingly hard to see that run continue.

Indeed when Anichebe squandered a clear opportunity to level, after doing all the hard work to beat Liverpool’s defence, defeat seemed scripted.

Simply, the Blues were not good enough. Too many long balls were aimlessly lofted to nowhere. Too many moves broke down at crucial points. Too many men in Royal Blue failed to shine.

Yakubu offered some solace with a smart turn and shot which stung Reina’s palms.

But the mist which rolled over the top of the Centenary Stand in injury time could just as well have been Evertonian prayers falling back to earth unanswered.

A gloomy epilogue to an awful afternoon saw Pienaar shown a second yellow card when Gerrard kidded Martin Atkinson with unnecessary face-clutching theatrics from an innocuous challenge.

In the grand scheme of things, it mattered little. The Blues were already beaten and the wait goes on, and on, for an Everton victory at Anfield.

Only a sports psychologist could determine whether 11 years without a win on the other side of the park, has created an insurmountable barrier in the Blues’ collective psyche. The unpalatable fact is that Everton choked in the face of their best chance to seize the derby bragging rights at Anfield in a long time.

David Moyes can only hope that this setback, albeit in different circumstances, can act as a similar catalyst to the last derby defeat.

And that the cavalry charge of an eventually fit again Arteta and Phil Jagielka has not come too late.

Copyright - Liverpool Echo

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