It was in the 96th minute of the previous Merseyside derby that Liverpool did what Australian cricketers refer to as putting your boot on a beaten opponent’s throat and pressing down.
Four goals up against a beaten team that had long since been reduced to ten men, Mamadou Sakho launched into the kind of tackle that would have only just been necessary at 0-0, bringing James McCarthy to his knees at the end Everton were supposed to be defending. This wasn’t about superiority, it was more than that. This was Liverpool grinding Everton into the Anfield dirt.
This time it had to be different. Win, lose or draw, Everton had to compete. There could be no abject surrender, no meek acceptance of their own inferiority. This was a night when high tempo, high physicality football was required, which made their high octane victory over Arsenal six days earlier particularly timely. If that meant the derby regressed to become the kind of fixture of which Joe Royle once said everyone would get a kick for 20 minutes and then someone would throw a ball on, then so be it.
Everton started as they meant to go on with their approach becoming clear even before kick-off when Jurgen Klopp complained that the grass had deliberately been left long. The wicket had been prepared, meaning Ronald Koeman had to make sure he picked the right team to make the most of the favourable conditions. The early signs were promising as Liverpool were hustled out of their stride and to such an extent that it took only ten minutes before Klopp vented his frustrations at the fourth official over what he felt was an overly physical approach from Everton.
On these occasions, though, the answer to that is always to be found on the pitch rather than in the technical area. Stand up to the intensity, so the theory goes, and your additional quality will allow you to win out. This is football with a Sunday league mentality with the right to play football having to be earned because it will not be easily given. For those present, it is as intoxicating as it is invigorating. For those neutrals watching at home on television it must seem like Life On Mars football, a throwback to the 1970s but without the moustaches and perms.
Most importantly from Koeman’s point of view, it suited Everton much more than it did Liverpool. The game was being played on their terms, making the bookmakers’ 3-1 odds for a home win seem even more generous than they had before kick-off. Liverpool wanted to play but could not find a way to and as their midfield became increasingly attached from their attack, the sight of long balls being played hopefully in the direction of Divock Origi lifted the Everton fans almost as much as their own team’s efforts. This was a proper derby. There would be no one-sided rout this time.
As the half hour mark approached, the concern for Everton was that they had not yet scored despite being on top, although even that worry was built on the premise that Liverpool would have to improve at some stage, something that even their most ardent supporters were hoping for rather than expecting as Klopp’s side struggled to establish any kind of rhythm.
It said much that Liverpool’s best player in the first half was Ragnar Klavan, a no nonsense defender who needed to be at his most obstinate in the face of Romelu Lukaku’s threat.
Adam Lallana, by contrast, found himself cut adrift as the storm raged around him and Liverpool’s attack malfunctioned as a result. Not until the 37th minute did they fashion a chance as Roberto Firmino underlined his growing influence on the game by triggering a move which culminated in Origi shooting wastefully into the Gwladys Street. Having finally come under threat, Everton upped the ante as Seamus Coleman made Lallana aware that he was not welcome in these parts; not that he didn’t know that already, regardless of having been a boyhood Evertonian.
Just as Everton’s ferocity began to lessen and the midfield gaps that they had been plugging began to open up, Koeman’s team created their best opportunity of the half as Ramiro Funes Mori met Ross Barkley’s corner with a powerful downward header only for the ball to bounce the wrong side of the post. There could be no more fitting way for the first half to end. A whole lot of effort had come to nothing, a situation which was probably more to Liverpool’s liking given they had yet to start playing in any kind of meaningful fashion.
The fear for Everton was that they might have already done their worst and the way the second half began, with Liverpool dominating possession and territory, underlined that worry. Suddenly, Everton looked ragged and their sloppy start should have been punished when Firmino raced clear only for the Brazilian to scuff his effort.
It was the kind of chance that Lukaku would have loved but by that stage the Everton forward was having enough trouble holding the ball up, to Koeman’s obvious frustration. The problems now belonged to Everton as it became increasingly apparent that Liverpool were starting to come up with solutions even if their usual fluency was still to be established.
The last thing Everton wanted with the game turning in favour of their rivals was an additional reminder of the Anfield night that they were so desperate to get out of their system but one arrived in the form of Joel Robles, who was introduced after Maarten Stekelenburg had been injured in a collision with Leighton Baines. But having conceded four in his previous game against Liverpool, this was, at least, a chance for the goalkeeper to provide some atonement, although the visitors had done little to suggest they were about to start peppering Everton’s goal.
By now, Everton seemed all but spent as an attacking force and their growing desperation to hold on led to an individual loss of discipline as Barkley felled Jordan Henderson with the kind of challenge that looks worse with every replay. Referee Mike Dean deemed it worthy only of a yellow card which at least suggested match officials are being consistent given the recent leniency shown to Marcos Rojo. What such tolerance might do for the limbs of a player somewhere down the line remains to be seen.
At least it was a talking point, even if it was one that Henderson’s right ankle could have done without, as Mersey Monday – as it had been imaginatively billed by Sky – left the viewing grateful that there would be no Mersey Tuesday or any other Mersey day before the two teams meet again in the spring. But just as damage looked set to be done to Liverpool’s title challenge with the dropping of two more points, Daniel Sturridge struck a pea roller against the post and Sadio Mane reacted quickest, shooting into an unguarded net.
The goal arrived in the 94th minute. It was nowhere near as humiliating for Everton as Sakho’s 96th minute challenge on McCarthy had been but it hurt just as much, if not more. The victory also means Liverpool have won as many league derbies at Goodison Park as Everton have, a statistic which further underlines the scale of the challenge that Koeman has taken on.
How big a setback this turns out to be for the Everton manager remains to be seen. His team had given their all but once again it had not been enough.
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