Physical element won it for Liverpool

By Nick Smith on Mar 31, 08 08:36 PM in Journalists

IF one moment encapsulated the 207th Merseyside derby, it was no surprise that Steven Gerrard was at the centre of it.

A block tackle on Phil Jagielka sent him running into the corner with nowhere to turn and little hope of getting out alive - just the way his Everton team-mates spent most of yesterday afternoon at Anfield.

Gerrard, with a shuddering sliding challenge, landed the inevitable killer blow to his opponent, which is where the similarity with the game as a whole ended.

Liverpool should have finished Everton off much earlier than at the final whistle such was their dominance.
But if the scoreline for a long time failed to reflect the pattern of play, moments like Gerrard's ruthless swallowing-up of Jagielka couldn't have summed it up better.

Hard but fair, the Everton centre-back would have been better off forgetting the football, hurdling the hoardings and running straight into the Kop. It would have been a safer place at that point.

Because the physical battle Liverpool were waging was key to ensuring there was no repeat of the pettiness that has marred recent derbies.

No need to rely on refereeing decisions, or to resort to 'small club' insults.

Rafael Benitez's ill-advised phrase of a year ago proved how much Everton had got under his skin - this time he made sure his players got inside their opponents'.

Liverpool played some fine football when they were in possession, but it's how they came to have so much that was key.

It was a trait obvious in the opening goal, as Xabi Alonso refused to let Yakubu shake him off and got the vital prod to the ball that allowed Dirk Kuyt to tee up Fernando Torres to score on his derby debut.

It was if Liverpool knew they had to get stuck in from the off and lay down that kind of marker.

Although Everton's need was perceived as greater ahead of the game because they had the deficit to claw back, extending it to five points was of paramount importance to the Red mission for fourth place given the respective fixtures that await next weekend.

So they set out determined to ensure they secured it and that early vibrancy knocked Everton into a stunned state they stood little chance of recovering from.

Especially with only one fit centre-forward in the 16, a situation that demanded they be up for the battle too - but they didn't apply themselves to it as cleverly as their hosts.

Lee Carsley, Phil Neville and Steven Pienaar were all booked for mistiming their attempts to impose their own physical stamp on the game.

But Liverpool had the cold calculation to go with their commitment, with Kuyt, Lucas and the blossoming Martin Skrtel all channelling their aggression into good old-fashioned ball-winning.

Gerrard even risked a kick in the face (accidental) from Jagielka to send Torres away on a counter-attack which was infuriatingly interrupted by the whistle.

And the line of stewards at the Everton end after the game couldn't have provided a more impressive barrier than Kuyt when he raced half the length of the field to box in Tim Howard and prevent him launching a desperate late search for an equaliser.

But while some things in football are predictable - like Steve Bennett's 'watershed' decision to send off Javier Mascherano last week being almost ignored completely by every official subject to dissent and disrespect over the weekend - others are less expected.

Like Everton succumbing to an opponent that initially looked like they wanted it more.

In truth, the way Liverpool applied themselves would have made it difficult for most sides at Anfield.

But, rather like in Florence, when the occasion demanded it, Everton seemed strangely subdued and unable to bring the qualities that have served them so well this season to the fore.

The challenge for David Moyes now is to extract them from his players for one final push.

That might not necessarily lead to Champions League football, of course. They can realistically make up ground next weekend but if hopes that Liverpool's distractions cause their league form to suffer will only happen in tandem with them extending their run in Europe. Which, if ultimately successful, will secure them the final ticket into the continent's premier club competition regardless of what happens on the domestic front.

But if Everton can take enough points from the final six games to even finish fifth, it will be still be an admirable achievement given the endless stream of injuries and adversity that even they couldn't overcome when it mattered most yesterday.

And, crucially for any manager obsessed with progress, it will also mark an improvement.

Improving their record in derbies at Anfield, however, is still so frustratingly beyond them.

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