Carragher Kyrgiakos Agger Insua
Kuyt Gerrard Maxi
Wonderful. “Can we play you – with 10 men – every week?”
It was a typical Merseyside derby, and the first half seemed typical of Liverpool’s season. Chippy beyond belief, multiple set plays for both sides, chances few and far between, and the inevitable red card. And given Liverpool’s luck, it was Kyrgiakos sent off when Fellaini stamped on his ankle, with the Belgian escaping any sanction. After Fellaini had kicked Kuyt in the face eight minutes earlier.
Unsurprisingly, it was finely balanced to begin the match: the game played mostly in midfield, with fouls, free kicks, and corners quickly piling up. Gerrard tested Howard early on with a dangerous free kick from near the byline, but neither side carved out much in front of goal. Reina was first called into action on an Everton set play, tipping Baines’ free kick over the bar in the 22nd.
The story was clearly the battle in the middle. Carragher, Mascherano, and Pienaar all picked up cautions before the 30th minute, and there probably should have been more, most significantly the aforementioned Fellaini incident, kicking the ball into Kuyt’s face from inches away after Pienaar committed his first bad tackle. The South African’s second tackle, where he got the yellow, could have seen him off as well.
And in the 33rd minute, Fellaini was in the middle of more controversy. Both he and Kyrgiakos charged for a loose ball. The Greek defender dove in two-footed, winning the ball and getting the man, with Fellaini stamping on Soto’s ankle as he rode the challenge. Both players stayed down while the commentators bayed for a red card, and the red card came, but not for whom the announcers and fans expected. If anything, both should have gone. But Kyrgiakos bafflingly wandered off the pitch as Fellaini was stretchered off, to be replaced by Arteta hoping to exploit the space between Liverpool’s 10 men. To be fair, it's almost impossible to referee a derby, and at the end of the day, Atkinson tried let the game flow, but to say I was infuriated at this decision is a massive understatement.
Liverpool shifted to 4-4-1, with Mascherano moving to right back, as Everton looked to put their numerical edge to use. Yet Liverpool had the best chance of the half, with Gerrard pinging a 25-yard free kick off the crossbar in the 45th. The second half started with Everton’s best spell of pressure, finally using the ball with a man advantage, and Cahill nearly heading in from Mascherano’s errant clearance in the 47th (although there looked to be an offside flag in the build-up).
But in the 55th, Liverpool got the goal the only way it was coming, finally putting the set plays to good use. Kuyt, making a nuisance of himself in the six-yard box, got between Neville and Howard to redirect Gerrard’s in-swinging corner past the keeper. I can’t wait to hear the media condemn the man marking on that one.
The goal clearly knocked Everton off their stride, possibly remembering Liverpool’s 3-1 win with 10 men in 2006. After Kuyt deftly cleared for a corner from Donovan’s clever run and cross in the 59th, the away side took 30 minutes to threaten Liverpool’s goal. It was the perfect display of how to play with 10 men, as two banks of four soaked up pressure, and Babel (on for Ngog in the 64th) put in an impressive performance as a lone striker relieving the pressure with pace.
Liverpool was perfectly content with a contentious, closed off game as Lucas and Gerrard were outstanding in midfield and Carragher a rock at the back. Emotions boiled over the 84th, Gerrard seeing yellow for a rude tackle in which he won the ball but purposely followed through Pienaar’s shoulder, prompting Anichebe to start handbags for which he was also cautioned.
Everton pressure was obviously coming, and they finally threatened in the penultimate minute of normal time. Yakubu worked out an inch of space and forced an excellent save from Reina with a fierce shot. Three minutes later, Anichebe rolled Insua to get to the byline, but tried to chip the on-rushing Reina, who smoothly collected. The game went out with a rightful bang when Pienaar finally got his marching orders, a second yellow for elbowing Gerrard, which was basically the last action of the match. And now we get to gloat.
It’s easy to be a Kuyt and Lucas apologist today. Along with the two Scousers, these four were utterly instrumental to the victory. Make no mistake – everyone played well, it was an immaculate team performance, which was needed given circumstances – but those players were head and shoulders above the rest. Another derby goal for Kuyt (who seemingly loves big games) – his 50th for the club and another season in double figures – while Lucas and Gerrard (in an inspiring and vocal performance worthy of Liverpool’s captain from Stevie) shut down the creative Arteta and Osman. Carragher gave Saha and Yakubu no space to operate, diving in reminiscent of Istanbul even if Everton posed half the threat of Milan. Special mention also goes out to Insua, who memorably kept Donovan quiet for long stretches.
Along with those against United, this is my favorite match when Liverpool wins. That they did it with backs against the wall – both because of this season’s form and today’s harsh sending off – makes it even better. The perfect riposte; I couldn’t be prouder right now. Yes, Liverpool needs results, and three points couldn’t be more warmly welcomed, but what we’ve demanded is resilience, fortitude, and Liverpool looking like an actual team. We got that in spades today.
Not a bad morale boost before Arsenal on Wednesday.