Kelly Skrtel Agger Johnson
Kuyt Meireles Maxi
Kuyt 68' (pen)
Liverpool score an early goal. They can't get a second despite bossing the game, and concede an equalizer because of a defensive mistake. Heads drop, and they concede a second. Time and time again. At least this time they came back for a point. It's January 16th, and that's only the second time that's happened in the league. 2-2 against Sunderland and 2-2 against Everton after being behind 1-2. Two "comebacks," for two points, in 22 games. That's beyond frightening. But it's better than coming away with absolutely nothing, as has happened all too often.
The Reds paid the price for not being further ahead at the interval. The first 45 minutes were as good a performance as we've seen in the league other than the first half against Chelsea. It was a open, exciting game with chances for both sides, and Torres should have started the scoring in the 17th, holding off Distin, turning Heitinga, and cannoning a shot off the post, with Kuyt's rebound deflected over.
Meireles finally popped his cherry twelve minutes later. Howard saved Kuyt's header from Johnson's dangerous cross and blocked the rebound, but couldn't keep out the third effort from 12 yards out. Less than two minutes later, Liverpool should have had a second, when Howard saved Torres' acute shot and Maxi ballooned the second chance. Meireles had another effort saved, Maxi shot straight down Howard's throat, and Torres chipped over just before the break. With Liverpool in that form, it looked a question of how many. Not this season, though.
Play completely changed after halftime. Less than 60 seconds in and Everton were unjustly level. Agger had to be replaced by Kyrgiakos due to illness, but it was his defensive partner Skrtel who shoulders the blame, caught wrong-footed and easily out-jumped by Distin on a corner that should have been given as a goal kick.
And as we've seen all too often, Liverpool went under. All the confidence accrued dissipated and Everton kept up the pressure. The go-ahead goal seven minutes later was a comedy of errors. With Kelly down, elbowed by Anichebe when winning the flick on, Beckford beat Skrtel to lay off for Osman, dancing between two (Lucas and Kyrgiakos) to return the ball to the striker, who held off Meireles' weak challenge and slotted past Reina.
At least this time, Liverpool didn't lay down. Unlike against Blackpool, where tired legs had a massive impact, cooler heads prevailed, and Liverpool reestablished some sort of possession. Chances remained few and far between – Meireles had a tame lefty shot saved and Howard coolly collected Maxi's flicked header – but at least Liverpool restored some semblance of sanity.
And then the attack finally came good in the 68th, aided by Everton's shaky set-play defense and some incredibly rash keeping from Howard. A Meireles free kick found Skrtel in space at the far post, and while he scuffed his close-range shot, Howard hauled down Maxi before the Argentinean could reach the loose ball. Kuyt, often the hero in this fixture made no mistake from the spot.
But Liverpool found few chances to take the lead, limited to two Torres openings: heading at Howard and chipping over the bar from Kelly's excellent throughball. Shelvey replaced Meireles, but fresh legs couldn't change proceedings, and Liverpool were lucky to see Coleman's deflected effort skitter wide in the dying seconds of normal time.
The play is improving. Tactically, Liverpool have looked far better pressing from the front, playing out of defense, and adding more steel to midfield. The formation can be described as 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1, or 4-3-3, which is a good distance better than a static 4-4-2. Hopefully, results will follow. After three games, it hasn't happened yet. But had Liverpool played like this all season, they'd be far better off in the table and Roy Hodgson would still have a job.
Liverpool's problems are three-fold. Defensive mistakes continue to cost the team; primarily, Skrtel is a shadow of his former self. The lack of confidence continues to weigh heavy on players' minds. And Liverpool, while marginally better, remains disjointed in the final third. Today's chances demonstrated improvement in that area, but only two opportunities after the equalizer show that improvement's still needed.
The most heartening thing – outside of the rarely seen "comeback" – was Dalglish's continued faith in youth. For the third straight match, Martin Kelly was excellent. Even though he's stepped in brilliantly at full-back, where he's predominantly played throughout his short career, I'm tempted to suggest he could be the answer at center-back in Carragher's absence. It's hard to think that the defense could be worse. Spearing showed few signs of a long injury layoff, providing little in attack – his pairing with Lucas isn't creative enough for most games – but he did much better in defense than Poulsen on Wednesday in tenaciously hunting play. And once again, Dalglish turned to Shelvey off the bench.
Torres continues to look more interested under the new manager. Johnson was much-improved at left-back, although Aurelio's continued absence still baffles. Meireles finally got on the goal sheet, Kuyt returned to form against his favorite opponents with a goal from the spot and an assist off his rebounded shot, and Maxi was diligent if disappointing in front of goal. As repeatedly stated, overhauling a deficit to at least earn a point is the biggest positive.
At the end of the day, it's a disappointing result. Liverpool looked on pace for a much-needed win after 45 minutes. A draw does little to get out of a potential relegation battle, still only four points ahead of 18th place. But if performances continue in this vein – outside of those seven minutes of madness, obviously – results will surely follow.
Today can be the first step towards rebuilding the club's shattered confidence. But if defensive mistakes aren't fixed, it could also be a 'one-off' Merseyside Derby and yet another false dawn.