Whatever optimism may have been brought about amongst the red half of Liverpool by the appointment of Kenny Dalglish and Liverpool’s performance at Old Trafford last weekend, the fervour quietened just a little during the week at Bloomfield Road, when a performance as insipid as anything seen under Roy Hodgson saw them capitulate to Blackpool for the second time this season. Today, however, is the Merseyside derby – an altogether different kettle of fish and and opportunity to exorcise another of this season’s demons, a 2-0 defeat at Goodison Park that was accompanied by a performance as poor as anything that Liverpool supporters have seen in recent years.
The ongoing soap opera at Anfield has, to a certain extent, masked the fact that this has also been a disappointing season for Everton. The go into the match in twelfth place in the Premier League table, ahead of Liverpool on goal difference, but the difference between the reaction of the two clubs has been marked. While Anfield has been engulfed with near-hysterical grief that has left most attempts at parody looking like understatement, Goodison Park has seen this season accompanied by a soundtrack of little more than the gnashing of teeth and the occasional anguished wail. They took until the start of October to register their first win of the season, but consistency continues to remain elusive for Everton as well as Liverpool. Everton have beaten Spurs, Manchester City and Liverpool and held Chelsea and Manchester United to draws, yet they, like Liverpool have struggled in the matches that they might have been expecting to win.
Dalglish’s return to Anfield is, of course, a spectacular visual and aural experience. The flags are up, the crowd, so frequently watching matches in near-silence this season, is in full voice and all is right with the world. Or is it? Howard Webb was held responsible for Liverpool’s elimination from the FA Cup last Sunday, but there was really nowhere for the players to hide on Wednesday night and serious question marks remain over this team’s ability to transform itself into a team that will match the expectations of the crowd. Steven Gerrard is missing – suspended, of course – and Fernando Torres still carries the gait of a disinterested spectator at times. For all the fanaticism of his acolytes, the appointment of Kenny Dalglish is at best a steadying hand upon the tiller, rather than a golden bullet to cure all of their ills.
The first half demonstrates that perhaps the adrenaline surge brought by a rousing reception can lift a team to a new plateau and, as the half wears on, Liverpool look increasingly confident. Fernando Torres hits the post and Dirk Kuyt sends the rebound into the crowd. The Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard is being called upon to almost single-handedly keep the Liverpool attack, but this state of affairs cannot last indefinitely. Torres shakes himself to life and curls the ball against the post, but the dam is stretched to breaking point and eventually it bursts. Howard makes a two fine saves in quick succession from Kuyt’s header and shot but the ball pops out to Raul Meireles, who shot catches Howard unsighted and squeezes in at his near post. Meireles, the Hodgson signing who has spent so much of this season playing out of position that he could be forgiven having developed a personalty disorder, has finally scored his first goal for Liverpool.
It’s a cathartic goal, a moment of release, a chance to take that step forward and kill the game off once and for all. Everton are shaken, on the ropes, making mistakes and ceding possession in key areas, yet Liverpool are unable to add a second goal before half-time and, within seven minutes of the start of the second half this balloon has been punctured. Within a minute of the restart, Mikel Arteta swings over a corner from the left, Pepe Reina gets stuck between the rock of staying on his line and the hard place of coming to claim an almost impossible cross to gather and, at the far post, Sylvain Distain heads the ball into the roof of the net to bring Everton level. Liverpool, from out of nowhere, are rattled and six minutes later Everton snatch the lead when Victor Anichebe flicks the ball on to Leon Osman, who holds the ball up excellently before rolling it into the path of Jermaine Beckford, who steadies himself before shooting across Reina and in. Such is the brittleness of this Liverpool team.
In the sheer, white heat of a Merseyside derby, however, the volume doesn’t drop and midway through the half Liverpool are level again. A free-kick swung into the Everton penalty area isn’t successfully cleared and Martin Skrtel completely misses his kick, but the ball falls to Maxi Rodriguez, who is brought down by the onrushing Howard. With Steven Gerrard missing, there is some cause for doubt over who might take the penalty kick, but Dirk Kuyt steps up and rolls the ball into the corner of the net to equalise. From here on, Liverpool look the more likely of the two teams to snatch a third goal, but clear chances remain scant with the best falling to Torres, who tries a chip when a drive may have been more appropriate and sees the ball fly over the goal. As time ticks away, though, Everton again start to look the more likely of the two teams to score and are somewhat unfortunate when a deflected shot wide of the post is called as a goal-kick rather than a corner.
Honours even, then, and this was just about a fair result, on balance. As a match between two mid-table teams (which is, in the cold light of day, what these two teams are), it was as absorbing a match as a Merseyside derby ever is. Whether Liverpool have made anything like a leap forward under Kenny Dalglish is impossible to answer at this stage. His team put in a decent performance at Old Trafford last Sunday, but a return of one draw from three matches would seem to indicate that substantial improvement is going to require structural changes to be made to it. Liverpool’s big issue this season has been consistency, so that they should have picked up a draw from this game is hardly surprising. They remain too good to go down, but not strong enough to challenge for a Champions League place, but at least Kenny Dalglish can console himself with the knowledge that he is guaranteed a longer honeymoon than his predecessor was.
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