Sunday, 28 September 2014

Bolt out of the blue causes derby dismay for Reds

A late sucker punch scuppered Liverpool’s hopes of kick-starting their season yesterday lunchtime.

As Phil Jagielka’s 30-yard strike thundered into the top corner of the Kop end net in the 90th minute, dismayed Kopites watched on with heavy hearts. Their hopes of a derby win that would breathe life into Liverpool’s ailing League campaign had been well and truly dashed by a bolt out of the blue from their greatest rival’s skipper.

It was a world class goal worthy of winning any game. Although both teams shared the points, for Everton it felt as if they had picked up all three points, while Liverpool suffered a crushing sense of defeat as the perfect opportunity to kick start their season slipped away.

It had all started so surprisingly well. As is typical, the Merseyside derby began at a frantic pace; Gareth Barry getting booked after only 45 seconds, but Liverpool were the better side and made all the early running.

Sterling and Lallana were particularly impressive, buzzing industriously around the target man Mario Balotelli, who saw his first minute free kick blocked by the Everton wall. Both sides then had fairly decent appeals for spot kicks harshly turned down by referee Martin Atkinson.

First, Moreno was very lucky to avoid being punished for recklessly felling Lukaku in the box. Then, Barry was even more fortunate to still be on the pitch after raising his hands above his head to block Sterling’s goal-bound strike. Had the 33-year old seen yellow for a second time at that point, the match could have panned out entirely differently.

Moreno and Hendo's appeals fell on deaf ears
As it was, after Howard had denied Balotelli and Lallana, the early high tempo dissipated and the match began to settle into a familiar rhythm, as Liverpool were dominant and did most of the attacking, but Everton posed a considerable threat when they counter-attacked with energy and pace.

Organised and efficient at the back, Martinez’s men had clearly worked on their defence, which had been the leakiest in the League. Although Liverpool’s back four likewise looked tighter, they were tested far less frequently, and when they were, issues still arose.

A perfect example came on the half hour mark, when Baines was evidently hungrier for the ball than Markovic, winning it from the Serbian in the area and nipping worryingly behind Liverpool’s lines before squaring dangerously across the goal. Only a last ditch clearance from Lovren prevented the lurking Lukaku tapping home.

Markovic didn’t fare much better at the other end either, seeing his shot from range sail harmlessly wide on 41 minutes. The Serbian is struggling to make an early impact on the team, and his replacement for the final half hour Philippe Coutinho clearly had a far more positive effect, cleverly engineering space and goalscoring chances with neat touches and quick passing and generally adding a new lease of life to Liverpool’s attack.

The Reds had one final chance to break the deadlock before the break, Henderson threading a great pass through for Sterling, whose shot was saved by Tim Howard after the American stopper had intelligently worked the angles so as to limit the amount of the goal that the teenage sensation had to aim for.

Having had 16 shots on goal compared to Everton’s three; Liverpool should have not only been in front, but out of sight by the end of the first 45 minutes. Instead, they remained frustrated and disjointed, as evidenced by Lovren colliding into Balotelli as he attempted to head home from close range a few minutes after the restart.

Liverpool required a moment of magic to revitalise them and reward their dominance. Thankfully, that bit of inspiration arrived halfway through the second period and, as is so often the case, Steven Gerrard was the one to step up to the plate and produce the goods in the Reds’ hour of need.

When Balotelli won a free kick on the edge of the box, Gerrard took control of the situation, ushering away the Italian and proceeding to curl a dipping effort into the back of the net. Admittedly, Howard should have done much better as he got a very strong hand to the ball, but Gerrard and the vast majority inside Anfield couldn’t have cared less. 

"Who said I was past it?"
Cupping his ear in celebration, this was Gerrard’s way of silencing his critics, including those amongst the rank of Kopites, and reminding them that he still has so much to offer the team, even at 34.

The resurgent Reds pushed for another, Sterling skinning Hibbert down the left and squaring to Balotelli, whose side footed effort bounced against the bar. At first sight it seemed as if the Italian had missed an unmissable effort, but, with the benefit of TV replays, Howard must be given credit for producing a remarkable save, as he somehow managed to get his shoulder in the way to deflect Balotelli’s shot against the bar.

Coutinho’s shot was blocked by Stones, before Henderson’s follow-up effort was well saved by Howard and Balotelli’s low shot went wide as Liverpool searched for the second goal that would kill off the game as a contest. However, as the clock counted down, they nervously retreated backwards, inviting pressure from the visitors, who duly punished them in the closing stages with a sucker punch that you could sense coming.

Although there was nothing Liverpool could do to stop Jagielka’s sensational 30-yard strike screaming into the net, it certainly didn’t help that Lovren’s headed clearance went straight to him, while Moreno’s stupid slide challenge on Lukaku moments after the restart gifted Everton a free kick in a dangerous position, which Barry back heeled just wide. Had the Toffees nicked an unbelievable late winner from that set piece, the Spanish new signing would have had some difficult questions to answer.

A worldy from Jagielka stole a point for Everton
At the end of the day, a draw that feels like a defeat does little but prolong Liverpool’s stalled start to what has been a deeply frustrating season so far. There’s nothing they can do but pick themselves up and go again in Basel on Wednesday and then against West Bromwich Albion next weekend. Two wins from those two fixtures might just make things look a little rosier for the Reds.


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