by Anthony Jones at Talklfc
The collective minds of Holmes, Marple, Columbo, Poirot and the other fictional detectives would be well vexed by the mystery being told by Liverpool Football Club this season. Devoid of ideas and drive against Blackburn, Liverpool followed up that tepid display with a performance of passion and quality. One team came to play football, and it was fitting that that side walked away with the points.
With the pre-match hype before the game building this up as the most significant Derby for years, both sides knew a performance was needed. This game wasn't quite the key to the door of Champions League opportunity, but to the victors, the momentum would surely go.
Benitez sprung a surprise with his starting eleven with Pellegrino preferred to Sami Hyypia, who had missed the midweek game due to illness. He was available, but having performed well in the Blackburn game, the Argentine was given a vote of confidence. It was deserved as Pellegrino appears to have settled to the pace of the Premiership and his form in his last two appearances has been good. Everton opted to play with Bent as a lone frontman, with Yobo coming in to the midfield.
If anyone was unsure of the passion of the Merseyside Derby, the doubt would have quickly evaporated as the Anfield crowd, subdued against Blackburn, came to life. With the two clubs so close, the pride of the City was up for grabs. Inspired by the crowd, it was Liverpool who flew out of the blocks. Milan Baros was central to everything. With Yobo out of the back line, Everton looked cumbersome at the back with Weir and Stubbs being dragged out wide by the movement of the Czech striker.
Liverpool were looking keen to get an early opener. Gerrard was surging forward from midfield, seemingly stung by recent criticism. An early cross into the box found Martyn flapping but Luis Garcia was unable to return the ball on target and instead played into the hands of a member of the Kop. Another cross into the box allowed Morientes to demonstrate his aerial ability as he managed to hang suspended in mid-air as the ball arrived, though his header lacked direction.
Whilst the creative players in the Liverpool line up were doing their job, they were allowed to do so due to the boys from Liverpool. Carragher and Gerrard realising their importance to the side in this fixture both launched into tackles determined to win the ball at all costs. At the most basic level, football is a simple game. There is a physical battle to be won, one which allows a team to then go and play it's desired style, and today Liverpool matched Everton in the fight. Nobody summed this up more than the normally fragile figure of Luis Garcia, who fought for every ball as if his life depended on it. That said, there was a cost.
With just under half an hour played, Warnock limped out of the contest having twisted an ankle. In a move that confirmed Liverpool's attacking intent, Benitez introduced Nunez to the game. The jury remains out on the player who was signed as the bit part of Owen's move to Madrid, yet more performances like this and he'll win over the Liverpool faithful. His quality on the ball wasn't always brilliant, but the determination and spirit he showed was in keeping with the tone of the Liverpool performance.
Moments later, Liverpool had a chance to open the scoring. A centre from Nunez fell to Garcia who controlled the ball and then slipped it through the legs of Hibbert. The young Everton defender dived in to block, but instead caught the forward player and conceded a free kick right on the edge of the box. From a central position, Liverpool had the chance to shoot on goal. Didi Hamann, as usual stood over the ball and initially dummied, dragging out the Everton wall, but also seemingly fooling Gerrard. The Liverpool captain screamed for the ball to be played, and as it was rolled in, Gerrard took two steps and prepared himself to strike. Then, in a display of quality and composure, Gerrard opted to side foot the ball home, with Martyn left stranded. The Kop erupted. Gerrard ran off to celebrate, kissing his badge in the process.
The lead was fully deserved. Everton had played no part in the game to this point. They're attacking ideas restricted to the long ball forward to the isolated Bent. In midfield they snapped away at the heels of Liverpool players, sometimes crossing the lines of fair play. Anfield was in full voice now, playing a full part in the game, and the shouts of 'hit it' could surely have been heard from miles around as the ball fell to Morientes in open play. A Liverpool attack had been cleared, but Hamann won back possession on half way. The ball looped forward and bounced invitingly for Morientes some thirty five yards out. Without the need for a controlling touch, he unleashed a dipping volley that looked destined to dip in. Martyn, realising the danger started to back pedal and looked to be winning his personal battle with the ball. However, Martyn misjudged his position, opting initially to catch the ball. Yet as he continued to fall backwards he was hit by the realisation he was taking the ball into the net and so looked to push it over the cross bar. Despite his best attempts, the initial error made it impossible for him to clear and the ball hit the cross bar and fell invitingly to Garcia who had remained alert to the opportunity.
With Everton reeling, Baros nearly added a third. A brilliant turn left Stubbs fully five yards behind him and the striker charged towards the box. Weir was well placed to come across and under pressure, Baros drilled his shot well wide. Everton's physical approach was taking it's toll though, as Baros in particular was subject to some rough treatment. Didi Hamann then added to Liverpool's injury problems as he seemed to damage his knee in open play. He was replaced by Biscan. Everton were now picking up bookings, with Weir and Yobo joining Hibbert in the refs book. It seemed only a matter of time before the official, Rob Styles, would show a red card.
Most teams talk of bad luck when it comes to injury, but Liverpool's tale of woe has been particularly dramatic. With the club's two expensive summer imports, Alonso and Cisse, both out injured, and Warnock and Hamann both off in this game, the last thing needed and expected was a further injury. Yet Liverpool suffered two, as Morientes and Garcia both went down injured within seconds of each other. In fact, Morientes had already been substituted before the extent of Garcia's injury was known. The little Spaniard, with little option, played on. All four injured players had performed well up to that point. Vladimir Smicer was introduced into the action. Liverpool were left to pray that no further injuries would be suffered, though with Everton in no mood to take their foot out of a tackle, that seemed in doubt.
On the stroke of half time, Everton nearly pulled a goal back as Carsley curled a free kick over the Liverpool wall. With Dudek well beaten, the Red fans in the ground were pleased to see the ball ripple the outside rather than inside of the net. With that, the half ended and Benitez was given the chance to organise his walking wounded. Anfield might have seen performances of greater quality over the years, but few could have matched the passion.
Liverpool came out in the second half with Garcia clearly restricted by the ankle injury he'd suffered. It appeared his involvement would be restricted to the section of the field marked out by the centre circle. Everton introduced Beattie, surprisingly in place of Yobo, but it made no great impact as Liverpool started where they left off. Biscan was quick to get involved going forward, attempting to link up with Baros when he could possibly have gone on himself. Then moments later he surged forward from his own half and arrived in a shooting position, from where he struck the ball wide. It was inspirational stuff from the Reds. Each Everton attacked was followed by a shout of "hoof" as the Liverpool fans mocked the direct approach of the opposition. Carragher and Pellegrino were battling hard to retain aerial supremacy which gave the home side the platform from which they could continue playing.
Milan Baros was then gifted a chance by Alan Stubbs who lost his balance in possession. The striker strode from half way and looked certain to score until a poor touch allowed the ball to slip out of control. By the time the ball was restored to a suitable position to strike, Hibbert was across and the chance was cleared for a corner. Everton responded by introducing Ferguson, with their play already direct, it was little surprise. However, Moyes may regret not leaving Bent on and taking off a defender, especially given the lack of mobility being shown by Garcia.
Baros then played Nunez in down the right. The substitute charged forward and then looked to cut inside. The Everton defence parted, a shot seemed inevitable, yet Nunez dithered, unsure whether to take the opportunity himself or present it to a team mate. Another opportunity lost. Everton, with Ferguson the fore, were looking to knock Liverpool out of their rhythm, literally. Tackle after tackle was put in and it seemed only a matter of time before Styles would show red to a Blue.
Baros nearly opened his account with a wonderful dipping volley after a perfectly weighted ball into his path off the chest of Garcia. He then saw another one on one chance drift by. Having showed great strength to initially win the ball off Weir, skill to skip past Stubbs and composure to trick Martyn into committing early, he then chipped the ball over the keeper. Yet Martyn had enough to just deflect the ball wide with his left foot as he lay prone on the ground.
Pistone nearly took Nunez out of the game with a late tackle. Gerrard tested Martyn with a stinging volley, and Weir launched Baros into the stands. What the game lacked in quality, it made up for in passion and excitement. Then, finally, the red card arrived. Yet the recipient was a surprise. Or so it seemed initially. Milan Baros chasing down the defender, raised his foot and caught Stubbs late. It was deserving of a sending off. Caught up in the passion of the day and frustrated by a perceived lack of protection from the match official having spent much of the day being battered by Weir and Stubbs, Milan's temper appeared to get the better of him. It was an uncharacteristic, but unforgivable action. He will surely be thankful that no real damage was done to Stubbs.
With Garcia still struggling, Liverpool were now playing effectively with nine and a half men. It wasn't long before Everton made the advantage count. As they had all day, Everton pumped the ball high into the Liverpool area. Ferguson finally won a header which fell invitingly to Cahill who caught the ball beautifully on the half volley. The ball flew into the Liverpool net, with Dudek beaten on his near post. Again, Dudek's part in the goal was in question as he appeared surprised by the near post strike. It was only the second time Everton had tested the Pole, the first shot on target for Everton had arrived just five minutes earlier.
With quarter of an hour left, the stage was set for Liverpool to stage a dramatic rear guard action. Liverpool will however be thankful that Everton continued with their uninspired. With the exception of a Ferguson header, Liverpool managed to see out the remainder of the game without too much threat to their goal. There was a moment of farce when Hibbert was booked, as Everton complained bitterly for two minutes to the official, and then claimed those two minutes should be added on at the end.
So all told, it was Liverpool's day. Not only a victory, but an inspired performance. With two weeks off now due to the international break, Liverpool will hope that the injury problems ease. Baros will miss three games in the run in and Liverpool may live to rue his self imposed absence. However, tonight is for happiness on the Red half of Merseyside, as pride has been restored.