Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Kuyt Gerrard Aurelio
That’s the Liverpool we know, love, and have dearly missed.
Two goals and a clean sheet, only the third league victory away from Anfield. A win forged by effort and perseverance, with a fortunate opener, but earned because of a rock-solid defense and a marvelous double save by Reina. Take your chances and blunt the opposition. Normal service has been resumed, and normalcy is extremely comforting. Funny how we’ve only seen normal service against the two closest rivals over the last two months.
The first half and opening goal were shades of the league match at Chelsea last year. Yes, Everton – three points above the bottom three – are no Chelsea, but form goes out the window in derbies, and we’ll take what we can get with the form Liverpool’s in.
Despite a cagey start, Liverpool tallied from an unlikely midfield source on a wicked deflection. Insua laid off to Mascherano in space, and we all held our breath as Masch unleashed another seemingly ill-advised blast from distance. But his low effort – which looked on target to begin with – ricocheted off Yobo to flatfoot Howard and find the far corner.
Like when he scored his first for the club, Mascherano wheeled away screaming and clutching his badge. I missed that passion; he’s been a different player since Argentina qualified for the World Cup, and it’s no coincidence Liverpool’s improved over that stretch. It’ll be a travesty if they rule it a Yobo OG, and like Carra's against Boro last year, I'll continue to credit him for it no matter what.
Similar to the last two matches, Liverpool were content to contain Everton after the goal, looking to counter on the break. The home side had at least two-thirds the possession for the rest of the half, if not three-quarters. Yes, the streak at the end of last season coincided with the team pressing from the opening whistle and continuing to press after the opening goal. It goes without saying that this isn’t last season’s team. Not having Torres, Benayoun, and Riera in the lineup, among others, was assuredly part of the logic as well.
Admittedly, Liverpool looked to be living on the edge. Bilyaletdinov scuffed an open shot wide at the back post after three (!!!) flick-ons in the box: Fellaini, Cahill, and Carragher. Jo twice had the ball in the net, in the 33rd and 43rd, but both were rightfully ruled out for offside. Insua had Liverpool’s only true chance of the half after the opener – a carbon copy of Aurelio’s opportunity to put Liverpool two-nil up against Lyon – but Howard tremendously kept out the Argentinean’s header in the 41st.
The second half saw more of the same, but Liverpool more competent in heading off the pressure and limiting Everton’s chances. Reina delivered a hearts-in-mouth moment, dropping Pienaar’s long shot in the 58th, but coolly collected given the circumstances. Kuyt created a chance at the other end in the 67th, getting to the byline and centering for Ngog, but Yobo was there to block. And then, four minutes later, Reina saved the day.
Unsurprisingly, the frightening moment came from a set play. Cahill got behind the backline, ostensibly onside, forcing Reina into a brilliant low stop. The impressive Fellaini was first to the loose ball, but Reina again prevented an equalizer, standing tall to block for a corner. Pressure cleared, and Everton clearly disheartened and tiring.
And Liverpool made them pay less than ten minutes later, taking advantage of the fresh legs of Benayoun and Riera as well as Kuyt’s shift up top. But the move started because of a Yobo mistake, allowing Gerrard in behind, holding off Hibbert and laying off for Riera. The Spaniard’s well-struck shot was saved, but Kuyt’s predatory instinct found him in the right place for the rebound. I’ll take credit for that having taken Kuyt out of my fantasy team yesterday.
Without these 2-0 wins over United and Everton, this season would be an utter disaster. But we got another backs-against-the-wall win against hated opposition, and now the team’s in fifth, three points behind Spurs and two behind Arsenal (although Arse has two games, including today's against Chelsea, in hand).
Admittedly, it wasn’t the most-impressive win, and it’s always frightening to see Liverpool sit back on a one-goal lead. But that’s also why it’s so heartening to see the team keep said lead under constant pressure before icing the game with ten minutes to play. That’s the Liverpool we haven’t seen enough of this season. A back-to-basics win should be good medicine.
And it’s a back-to-basics win despite some disappointing individual performances. Gerrard clearly isn’t fit yet, and along with Aurelio, found it tough to influence proceedings and gave the ball away too often (as did Lucas). Kuyt had another game not worth writing home about until his crucial goal, although he looked better up top with Benayoun and Riera supporting.
On the other hand, I’m obviously thrilled with the defense. Carragher and Agger were imperious. Johnson, in a more restrained role, kept Bilyaletdinov quiet for long stretches. Insua was a lot steadier, although aided by Aurelio’s innate conservatism. Reina's man of the match for those saves. Most importantly, Mascherano’s back to normal, finally reaping the benefits from those blasts from distance. And Ngog did well as a lone striker, holding up play well for his age.
In my glee with back-to-back wins for the first time since the end of September, I might be playing up the performance too much. Everton’s not Chelsea or City (or arguably even Fulham). But a derby’s a derby and a win’s a win.
The team was able to put Tuesday’s disappointment behind them and win one of the most important league fixtures. And it’s a win in Benitez’s image, giving the team needed momentum before Blackburn in six days.