King Kenny Dalglish received a rapturous reception yesterday as he returned to his Anfield home to witness an enthralling encounter between two Merseyside sides desperate to revitalize their floundering fortunes.
Raul Meireles' fantastic first goal in a Red shirt gave the hosts a fully deserved lead at the break, however two controversial goals in seven second half minutes from Distin and Beckford swung the game in favour of the Toffees. Thankfully Liverpool battled back to earn a hard-fought point as Dirk Kuyt slotted home coolly from the penalty spot to level the scores at 2-2.
With Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard missing through injury and suspension respectively, Martin Kelly and the surprisingly selected Jay Spearing provided the vital local heart beat of the side in what was a typically competitive yet thoroughly entertaining 215th Merseyside derby.
An incredible and stirring rendition of "You'll Never Walk Alone" greeted both Dalglish and his determined troops and this proved the inspiration to a fantastic first half of free-flowing football from the home side. Everton's Seamus Coleman may have had the first sight of goal when he shot wide after two minutes, however it was the Reds who controlled the opening stages and remained in the ascendancy for the rest of an absorbing first period.
Martin Kelly continued at right back and displayed yet more signs of promise and potential on 11 minutes when his sensational run down the right wing with pace and determination took him easily past two men and Everton then had to clear his dangerous cross under pressure from Dalglish's forward thinking team.
Torres turned and shot into the Anfield road end a minute later before the Spaniard went even closer to breaking the deadlock when he took advantage of a mistake from Distin and raced through on goal. The Liverpool number 9 dummied and cut inside before smashing a great strike agonisingly against the inside of the post. Kuyt's poor follow up attempt then flew over the bar and the chance was squandered.
It was Liverpool who were asking all the questions though as they continued to probe the Everton backline in search of the crucial first goal, with Agger's flicked header drifting just wide midway through the half. Meanwhile the visitors were left to pump long balls forward for Fellaini, who was winning the ball regularly in the air. In fact Liverpool almost fell behind when Beckford was inches away from reaching one of Fellaini's knockdowns in the box, only for Reina to fortunately gather.
Liverpool claimed the lead in empathic fashion on the half hour mark as encouraging attacking play from the Reds was rewarded with a well-worked goal. Glen Johnson, who persisted at left back despite another below-par display at Blackpool during midweek, combined with Torres to maraud down the wing before beautifully crossing to Dirk Kuyt at the back post. The Dutchman was denied twice by excellent goalkeeping as Tim Howard kept out his close range header and shot in quick succession. Fortunately the ball eventually fell to Meireles, who fiercely and magnificently struck home from 12 yards.
It was an excellent goal from the hosts as persistent and positive attack minded football paid off handsomely with both an entertaining match to enjoy and the all-important lead. Fernando Torres was also clearly enjoying an increased level of support from the midfield, as he thundered a great strike goalwards only two minutes after Meireles had given us the lead. The on-form Howard made an excellent save and Maxi smashed the resultant loose ball over the bar to the relief of Everton, who were struggling to cope with the intensity of our attack.
After that Torres' shot was blocked before Meireles saw his effort parried away by Howard and Maxi drilled a shot straight down the American keeper's throat as Liverpool ended the half on top and threatening to extend their advantage.
Dalglish must have been delighted after such a brilliant first half, and would have expected more of the same during the second half, however Liverpool inexplicably reverted to the type of play that blighted and ultimately defined Hodgson's spell at the club and, although two crucial decisions went against us, we could have no complaints as Everton were far superior in the opening moments of the second half.
Only seconds after the interval a left wing corner evaded the Reds' defence and travelled to Distin, who climbed above Skrtel to reach the ball and head beyond the flailing Reina and into the net despite the best efforts of Johnson on the goalline. Replays later showed that a corner should not have been awarded in the first place because the ball had clearly came off an Evertonian last, however shocking defensive play, particularly from Skrtel and Reina, was mainly to blame for Everton's easy route back into the tie.
With the hosts still reeling from losing their lead so quickly Everton struck the sucker punch on 52 minutes when Beckford held off Kyrgiakos' challenge to steer a low strike past Reina from eight yards after the former Leeds striker had been cleverly teed up by Osman.
It was an admittedly good goal from the visitors however Kelly had landed awkwardly following an aerial clash with Anichebe in the build up and lay motionless whilst Everton proceeded to score. Although there was evidently no malicious intent in the challenge, the simple fact that Kelly was suffering from a head injury should have been enough to stop play and allow the young right back to receive treatment.
Following such an encouraging first half where Liverpool played some of their best football of the season, this dramatic turnaround was devastating for Dalglish's men. In recent weeks setbacks such as these would have resulted in heads dropping and a parasitic lack of confidence infecting the team and leading to a lethargic end of the game.
However, due to both the magnitude of the occasion and the supporters' passion, Liverpool responded and found a way back into the match after 66 minutes when Tim Howard brought down Maxi in the box and referee Phil Dowd pointed to the penalty spot. With regular penalty taker and skipper Steven Gerrard suspended Dirk Kuyt stepped up to slot the ball confidently and coolly into the net after he had sent Howard the wrong way.
Anichebe then headed off target before Torres' backwards header was comfortably stopped by Howard as the game began to develop an end-to-end feeling as Everton searched for their first double over Liverpool since their 1984/1985 title winning season, while the Reds were desperate to mark the return of club legend Kenny Dalglish with a winner to round off a pulsating contest.
A late but correct offside flag from the linesman frustratingly denied Torres after Maxi had played him in on goal with only six minutes remaining, as Liverpool looked the more likely to grab an exciting late winner. However, it was the Toffees who had the final chance of the match when an Everton corner led to a frantic goalmouth scramble before the ball eventually trickled mercifully wide.
Although one point is not really enough to significantly alter either sides' fortunes, the first half performance and the way we recovered following a massive setback at the start of the second period demonstrate the quality our squad possesses and offer hope for an improved second half to the campaign under a manager fully backed by the Kop, who were loud in their support as usual yesterday.
Praise must be reserved particularly for Raul Meireles, who displayed his attacking potential by providing support for Torres throughout and scored a wonderful goal to open the scoring. Also, Jay Spearing was committed and conscientious and Fernando Torres improved further under the guidance of a former forward even he would aspire to play like.
Liverpool now have a week to prepare for the trip to Wolverhampton next Saturday, where the Merseysiders must look to take both revenge and the three points in order to begin our journey on the long road to reclaiming a semblance of away form.