Carragher Skrtel Hyypia Aurelio
Kuyt Gerrard Alonso Riera
Draws at home. Draws at home. Draws at home.
There. I wrote the season review. And it’s January 19th.
And it’s Everton, on a late goal, on a set play, in the dying minutes, that’s made me contemplate getting out the razor blades. Splendid.
Merseyside derbies almost always play to the same pattern – contentious, tight, with few chances and the home side marginally on top. Each carved out a couple of openings, but Liverpool easily had the best of the first half, and should have gone one up in the 28th. And it was Torres missing the kind of chance he thrives on: receiving a wonderful throughball from Hyypia and outpacing both Jagielka and Lescott, but he dinked his shot over Howard off the post. When he’s match-fit, he doesn’t miss those, so maybe that’s a ray of optimism.
The second half was more akin to the recent games where Liverpool’s stuttered. Other than a contentious penalty not given in the 48th (I truly think it was, with Jagielka clipping Torres, but I’m obviously biased), and Howard’s save on Gerrard followed up by Baines making a tremendous tackle on Hyypia’s attempted rebound eight minutes later, the home side found it harder to get through despite increased possession.
It was the unfortunate same old until Gerrard popped up in the 68th, receiving the ball from Riera in the middle of the pitch, striding forward, and unleashing a trademark effort past Howard for his fourth in a derby. He hasn’t had his most consistent season, but he’s got at least double the goals of everyone else in the team. And those goals have been needed.
But then, with Everton in need of an equalizer and more willing to press forward, Liverpool invited them on. Instead of fortifying the defense, the substitutions of Benayoun for Keane (which happened before the goal) and Lucas for Torres seemed to help the visitors by removing two attacking outlets.
And in the 87th minute, it happened. Benayoun dove into a poor tackle near the byline, Arteta accordingly sent in a dangerous free kick, and there was Tim Cahill. Of course.
For once, the media has a right to complain about the zonal marking, which absolutely broke down. Cahill drifted in unnoticed behind Hyypia, with Skrtel unwilling to follow the Australian, while Riera didn’t step forward enough to clear before the ball got through.
And with defense substitutions already made, only Kuyt as a striker, and already on the back foot, there wasn’t going to be any late heroics. Babel came on in the 90th minute in a clear case of too little, too late.
And the sad thing is, this was Liverpool’s strongest “attacking” line-up. 4-4-2, Torres and Keane up top, and Mascherano left out for Gerrard and Alonso in midfield. It was pretty much the same line-up as at Goodison, with only changes in defense (Hyypia and Aurelio for Arbeloa and Dossena). But Liverpool still could only register one goal, Torres and Keane again struggled to link up, and a late goal from a set piece means yet another draw.
Reiterating earlier worries feels like a bad case of Monday morning quarterbacking after a result like this. But this game only brings more questions about whether Torres and Keane can work together, and I worry that the £20m spent over the summer – money that’s desperately needed – is actually what’s going to keep Liverpool from winning the title.
Today, long balls forward for Torres were aimed with the intent of the Spaniard flicking on for Keane. The throughball from Hyypia sending Torres on a run, which led to Liverpool’s best chance, was the exception rather than the rule. That isn’t playing to Torres’ strengths, and Keane, so dangerous in similar positions playing with Berbatov last season, was no great shakes feeding off those balls.
There are lots of qualifiers. Torres is just back from a long-term injury. The two have only had something like six games together as a pairing. And Keane, already under pressure, has been in and out of the squad himself – although that’s down to Rafa’s selection.
But history’s seemingly shown Torres is best as a lone striker running through the middle with the ball at his feet, and shown that he and Gerrard do well with the captain playing further forward. And with the team on a poor run and a title chance slowly slipping out of the fingers, I’m losing faith in a Torres/Keane pairing at an alarming rate.
Admittedly, matches against Everton that end like this make me even more pessimistic than I usually am. Level on points with United, although the rivals have a better goal difference and game in hand, it’s nowhere near over mathematically. Liverpool have to do four points better than United over the next 16 matches. That’s not unheard of.
But other than the two games between Christmas and New Year’s Day, this team has shown damn little over the past month. League winners don’t draw four matches out of six, against teams in 9th, 5th, 19th, and 6th. League winners don’t draw five out of eleven home matches. League winners don’t give up a goal like this in the dying minutes of such an important match.
And that it’s Everton that seemingly put the foot on the throat with a draw at Anfield earned in the 87th minute is an added kick to the nuts, to say the very least. But some semblance of revenge can be reaped in six days.