For all of the talk of the modernisation of football, there remain some outposts of the game that are defiantly of another age. Everton’s Goodison Park is one of them, not that it hasn’t been for a want of trying to leave their home of almost 120 years in recent seasons. There is also something of the old school about the pre-match here as well. Everybody knows how “important” this match is (not least Alan Hansen, who, on last night’s “Match Of The Day” described this match as Liverpool’s “most important in thirty years” – never knowingly undersold, is Hansen), but there is very little “Right Here Right Now” type bombast on display. “It’s A Grand Old Team To Play For” followed by the theme music to Z-Cars (which is based upon the Liverpool folk song, “Johnny Todd”) is the pre-match entertainment as the teams emerge from the tunnel.
John W Henry is here today and he probably spends the first twenty minutes or so wondering what on earth it is that he is watching. The match kicks off at a furious pace – so furious that it makes the average Premier League match look sedate – and Everton have Liverpool completely pegged back in and around their own penalty area. Phil Jagielka and Sylvan Distain both shoot narrowly over and Liverpool are clearly struggling with the tempo of it all. It takes more than twenty minutes before they string a reasonable passage of possession together, which ends with Fernando Torres’ header being tipped over the crossbar by Tim Howard. At the other end, meanwhile, Yakubu has a low shot smothered by Reina. At this pace, it feels like a matter of time before the match is sprinkled with a dusting of yellow cards and, sure enough, Steven Gerrard and Tim Cahill both find their way into Howard Webb’s little black book, and Meireles follows them shortly afterwards.
After thirty-three minutes, though, Everton take the lead. Seamus Coleman manages to wriggle his way to the byline and drags the ball back, and the Liverpool central defence as Tim Cahill thrashes the ball into the roof of the net from seven yards out. Anybody hoping to learn a great deal about Liverpool team from their response to the Everton goal is unlikely to take much encouragement from it. Within a couple of minutes, Everton have the ball back again and are again encamped in the Liverpool half, winning a flurry of corners. The cheering of the home becomes more and more jeering as Liverpool commit a series of minor, yet highly irritating, mistakes. Reina mis-kicks a couple of clearances straight to Everton players. Meireles and Torres get in each others way on the edge of the Everton penalty area when they do manage to fashion half a chance. It’s sloppy, and it’s certainly no great improvement on the Blackpool or Northampton matches.
Five minutes into the second half, however comes the knockout punch as Liverpool fail to clear a corner and Mikel Arteta drives the ball through the crowded penalty area, wide of Reina’s hand and in. There are question marks over whether Yakubu was offside and interfering with play, but the referee sees otherwise and the goal stands. Against most teams, a two goal lead with forty minutes left to play would necessarily be considered home and dry, but Liverpool this afternoon are almost completely bereft of wit, concentration and confidence. They have nothing left to offer that isn’t thrown up by lapses of concentration in the Everton defence and even the noise of the crowd starts to fall away as the fact that there is not going to be any great comeback this afternoon. With five minutes to play, Fernando Torres manages to wriggle himself a little space but he shoots without any great conviction and Howard blocks with ease.
Everton, then, continue their recent recovery. They’re too good to go down, and they know it. A season of struggle and a slow start are two very different things indeed and Everton will now be setting their sights skyward – this one win alone leapfrogs them up the Premier League table into eleventh place. Having scored the second goal early in the second half, they took their foot off the collective pedal and were allowed to by a Liverpool team that is starting to look like one that could well struggle this season, rather than being one that has just a slow start. The second goal drops them, on goal difference, to nineteenth place in the table. Whatever may have been resolved off the pitch this week clearly hasn’t rubbed off on the players to a great extent. More troublingly for the club’s supporters, the new owners can’t make any significant changes to the squad until January. What, though, will the new owners think of their pledge to give Roy Hodgson more time having seen this performance, though?
It has been an anonymous afternoon for Liverpool, an afternoon during which the players have shown around one millionth of the amount of character shown by the club’s supporters as the ownership came under such an extraordinary spotlight during the week. If those supporters are to take one thing away from this match, it will probably be that the rebuilding of Liverpool Football Club begins with the exorcism of Gillett and Hicks as well as their removal from the club being the end of an era. Many in the press are still shaking their heads and asking the question of how long this madness can continue, but the evidence was writ large upon the pitch at Goodison Park this afternoon – at the moment, Liverpool are worthy of the nineteenth place that they occupy. If this season is not to turn into a relegation battle, then they have to improve and they have to improve quickly. Quite where this improvement is going to come from, however, is another matter altogether.