THE reward, as always, was the same; three points for the winner. But in emerging victorious from the 213th Merseyside derby, defying the odds to make light of a numerical disadvantage, Liverpool will feel today that this is one of the rare occasions when a Premier League triumph was worth so much more.
While there is no disputing they enjoyed a huge slice of fortune earlier in the season when pilfering the spoils at Goodison Park, the same cannot be said after the latest squabble between this city’s rival clans.
Running themselves to a standstill, tackling everything that moved and stretching every sinew to protect an unbeaten home record in derbies which now spans 11 years, Liverpool fully warranted taking the spoils.
True, David Moyes will argue otherwise and he quickly told inquisitors afterwards that this was a game Everton did not deserve to lose; those claims might have been taken more seriously had his side showed more attacking ambition.
Once again, however, Everton lacked the cunning and the guile and, perhaps, the tactical acumen to take advantage of playing for more than an hour with an extra man at Anfield.
What ramifications this result will have on Everton’s campaign, only time will tell but there is genuine reason for thinking that this success is the one Liverpool needed to transform a season that, whisper it quietly, is threatening to come to life.
There have been so many issues with which to contend during the past six months that, more often than not, affairs on the pitch have played second fiddle, a point which was proven in the run-up to this latest derby.
The pre-match agenda was again dominated by finance, following the revelation that the £100m investment Liverpool are seeking is going to pay off debt.
Admittedly, some of the football the Reds have served up this season was not worth talking about and, possibly, their harshest critic will still be saying they are failing to be aesthetically pleasing.
Yet they are winning and, as shown at the weekend, they are winning well; Dirk Kuyt’s header might have been the difference between the sides, but Liverpool simply ran Everton off the pitch.
Many will have initially expected Martin Atkinson’s decision to send Sotirios Kyrgiakos off for his coming together with Marouane Fellaini to favour the Blues but, if anything, it served only to galvanise Liverpool.
Given the way the sanitised environment in which football is played nowadays, Kyrgiakos had to go as both his feet left the floor, despite TV replays confirming what the naked eye initially saw – that he had taken the ball.
Atkinson, though, should also have sent off Fellaini – who was earlier fortunate to avoid censure for clashing with Kuyt – after he stamped on Kyrgiakos in the same incident, while the less said about Steven Pienaar’s foul on Javier Mascherano, the better.
A side lacking discipline might have imploded at this point, and Atkinson’s unhelpful officiating did nothing to quell the feeling which pervaded from the first minute that this game was one robust tackle away from a melee breaking out.
Fortunately, the cool heads Benitez had demanded in the build-up came to the fore; playing with controlled aggression and discipline, Liverpool manipulated matters to such an extent that Everton played into their hands.
Benitez said: “We deserved to win. From the beginning we did well in terms of work rate. After the sending-off it was amazing to see all the players working so hard defending and also trying to go forward and score goals.”
Embodying the effort was Mascherano.
Asked to switch to right-back after Kyrgiakos’s red card, the little man from San Lorenzo was immense, filling an unfamiliar role with aplomb.
Scampering up and down the flank, combining to great effect with the equally-industrious Kuyt, Mascherano epitomised all that was good about this performance, lifting the crowd with his energy and commitment.
Sentiments which applied to the team’s local core.
Jamie Carragher, predictably, savoured every second, bellowing and barking instructions, imploring his team-mates to maintain their focus.
Steven Gerrard, meanwhile, picked the perfect stage to deliver his best performance in weeks, playing with dynamism and drive; like Carragher, you could see the demands of this frenzy suited him down to the ground.
Fitting, then, he provided the inch-perfect delivery from a corner for Kuyt to sneak in between Phil Neville and Tim Howard and give Liverpool a lead they never once looked like relinquishing, much to the chagrin of Evertonians.
Everton, really, should have posed more of a threat but despite Moyes’s claim they are nearer to Liverpool now than they have ever been, it could just be that the final step he is trying to take is the one which will cause him most problems.
A bigger test now awaits the Reds at The Emirates on Wednesday but, suddenly, it does not appear to be the fixture from hell it threatened to resemble at the turn of the year when Liverpool were struggling.
This run of matches – Everton, then Arsenal, followed by Manchester City – always threatened to be like the celebrated Railway Fences at Sandown Park, obstacles which will need no explaining to horse racing aficionados.
Should a horse meet the first of those three jumps on a bad stride, it is almost impossible for them to recover and chances are that mistakes will follow at the second and third because they come in such quick succession.
Clear the first on a sure footing and the opposite is true; having got the win against Everton, it now does not require such a huge leap of faith to see Liverpool performing with credit in the capital.
Confidence is flooding through the squad and now they are back in the top four, the Reds could take some shifting.
If that happens to be the case, they will look back at the 213th Merseyside derby as being their definitive moment.
LIVERPOOL (4-2-3-1): Reina; Carragher, Kyrgiakos, Agger, Insua; Mascherano, Lucas; Kuyt (Skrtel (90 +5), Gerrard, Rodriguez (Aurelio 90 +3); Ngog (Babel 63).
EVERTON (4-5-1): Howard; Neville, Distin, Heitinga, Baines; Donovan, Osman (Anichebe 72), Fellaini (Arteta 40), Cahill, Pienaar; Saha (Yakubu 72).
Goal – Kuyt (55)
Bookings – Kuyt (20), Pienaar (29), Carragher (30), Heitinga (56), Gerrard (85), Anichebe (85).
Sent-off – Kyrgiakos (34), Pienaar (90 +4)
Attendance – 44,316. Referee – Martin Atkinson
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