Steven Gerrard’s late winner against Derby at Pride Park saw the Reds move into fourth place in the league, leapfrogging Manchester City. City play tonight, and so are able to move back ahead of the Reds, but that would leave Liverpool with a game in hand.
Liverpool went ahead thanks to £18m Fernando Torres, who scored another individual goal that showed why top sides need top players. Liverpool should have killed the game off, but chances were missed and at half-time Paul Jewell knew he had a way of motivating his players for the second half. They’d been beaten 6-0 at Anfield under different management earlier in the season, and here they were a goal away from a draw. They seemed to put more aggression into their game for the second half, and were eventually awarded a goal from a free kick. Xabi Alonso was penalised for handball, when replays showed it hit his chest, and the Reds defence seemed to switch off as the free kick was taken.
Gerrard hit the bar and Aurelio missed by a whisker as Rafa’s side kept on fighting for a winner, which eventually came from the captain in the last minute of normal time.
Rafael Benitez reflected afterwards: “In the first half we were really good and controlling the game, but we couldn’t score the second goal. We had possession, we created some chances but we’re not finishing the game or killing the game and I’m not sure why. The second half was more difficult for us – they were more physical and aggressive, we gave the ball away two or three times, and when they got the free-kick for the goal we looked nervous and conceded. They were more compact by that time and were working really hard. We were giving the ball away too much and the pitch was not the best either but we still needed to create more.”
Rafa was pleased to see chances created, disappointed they weren’t converted: “We still created good clear chances, though, through Xabi Alonso, Fernando Torres, Dirk Kuyt and Andriy Voronin. Gerrard won the game for us at the end and we know how good he is at getting from box to box, but as I said we should have had the game won a lot earlier than what we did.”
Rafa knows that he gets criticism even for victories if the performance wasn’t top-notch. But in his mind this is balanced out by the way that his teams can play well and still not get three points. Before too long the performances are forgotten and it’s the points on the table that matter: “People forget some games this season where we played really well and couldn’t win. So in three months time all that will matter today is that we got the three points despite the performance. The win is the only thing they will talk about, like they talk about only drawing with Birmingham and Chelsea when we should have won, and we lost to Manchester United last week when I thought we were much better than them.”
Rafa’s lack of backing in the summer from the owners means that he has fewer top class players than he would like. He is a firm believer in rotation, and nothing is going to change that. What he needs is to know that when he does rotate, the players he brings in are as good as the ones being rested. That’s not the case right now, and with the owners reportedly struggling to afford their purchase of the Reds, is not likely to be the case any time soon. Rafa knows he needs players at the level of Torres and Gerrard to start every game, but knows he can only do this by actually starting Torres and Gerrard for every game. And doing this worries him because in his eyes this is a risk to the long-term availability and performance of the pair. He talks of Gerrard and Torres as “top” players, and although he acknowledges the roles played by the next tier of player, “good” players, he says “top” players win games: “They must be top players because of the matches they win for us. We have lots of good players who have made a difference for us in games this season, but this is why you need your top players.”
As well as losing Alvaro Arbeloa before the game to flu, Rafa lost centre-back Sami Hyypia in the second half with either an ankle or knee problem, depending on which interview he was speaking in: “Sami had a problem with his ankle and we will need to see how it is. I will need to talk to the doctor.” Later he was quoted as saying: “Sami has a problem with his knee and will have to go and see the club doctor. We will have to wait and see what happens with him but he will be a doubt.”
Daniel Agger is close to a return from his injury, but has been out for quite some time now and the boss would have preferred to introduce him in a more controlled way. Jack Hobbs is also available if Sami doesn’t make it.
There was also a bit of a bust-up on the touchline. McEveley was booked for a foul on Voronin. Rafa saw it as a disgusting and dangerous tackle and was angry, Jewell felt Voronin was play-acting. Jewell admitted that he’d sent his side out to “compete” in the second half, to “have a right go at them”, and this wasn’t lost on the Reds boss: “The longer the game went on the more physical and aggressive Derby were. For me, it was a bad tackle.” So Rafa told Jewell, who didn’t agree: “He said his player didn’t touch him,” said Rafa, “but it was a different point of view. At least I didn’t receive a tackle from him when he approached me!”
Liverpool’s struggles to put games like this to bed might turn out to be what stops them from winning the league, but at nine points from the top with a game in hand they’re not out of contention on paper. If Liverpool play to their best every game from now until the end of the season they can win the league – but playing as they sometimes do then they will drop points and fall away from the pace. Rafa’s not likely to get the kind of help he needs financially to tweak his squad next month. So when asked if he felt the Reds could win the league, he deflected the question with his usual “one game at a time” policy: “We need to think about City, it’s one game at a time. We have a game in hand. You never know.”
Derby’s Paul Jewell, once a Liverpool reserve striker, was pretty down after the game: “I sit here bitterly disappointed to have lost the game. Everything seemed to conspire against us after what happened with Stephen Bywater before kick-off and then with Stephen Pearson during the game. I make all my subs then Earnshaw pulls a calf. We were really stretched at the end and the injury problems are mounting up.
“But I was pleased with the way we played in the second half – effort, fight. It’s what the supporters want to see and as long as my players give their all, I can’t complain.”
Of the touchline row with Rafa after McEveley’s tackle, Jewell said: “You have to compete and make a few tackles when you play against a side like Liverpool, otherwise they will kill you if you show them too much respect. He never touched him. It might have been a foul, I don’t know, but that happens in games.” He never touched him, but it might have been a foul?
Derby’s equaliser came from a free-kick for handball which replays clearly showed was an error by the referee, but Derby County’s official website claimed that the winner from Gerrard followed another refereeing error, saying Alan Wiley should not have waved play on after a Fabio Aurelio challenge on Tyrone Mears. Jewell wasn’t going to get drawn into it: “Sometimes you get those decisions and sometimes you don’t, especially when you are down at the bottom, but from the reaction of the crowd you can see what they thought of the players today and that will give them heart for the rest of season.
“It was nice to score, but eventually we have to start winning matches if we are to stand any chance of staying up.
“We’ve now lost Stephen Pearson for several weeks with a dislocated a shoulder, while Robert Earnshaw has pulled a calf, so it was backs to the wall and we were up against it. Yes we chased the game, but I’m not going to fault the effort of the players in the second half – that second forty-five performance is what we have to do for the full ninety.”
“I could have made quite a few changes at half time. Johnno was one of the players who came in and he did a good job. I wanted a reaction and that’s what I demanded for the second half and I got it. In the first half we were too open all over the pitch and didn’t get our tackles in. We picked up those injuries but it’s easy to feel sorry for yourself – we just had to keep fighting. I demanded a better reaction in the second half and that’s what I got. The supporters were terrific again and they acknowledged the effort the players put in after the break.
“Liverpool are a great team, but we pushed them all the way.”
Derby: 1 Price, 24 Mears, 5 Leacock, 23 Moore (22 Feilhaber, 45), 4 McEveley, 16 Teale (10 Earnshaw, 56), 28 Barnes, 25 Pearson (6 Johnson, 26), 15 Lewis, 9 Howard, 14 Miller
Unused subs: 29 Hinchliffe, 11 Fagan
Bookings: McEveley 71
Goal: McEveley 67
Liverpool: 25 Reina, 3 Finnan, 4 Hyypia (11 Benayoun, 54), 23 Carragher, 6 Riise, 19 Babel (18 Kuyt, 72), 8 Gerrard, 14 Alonso, 12 Aurelio, 9 Torres, 10 Voronin (21 Lucas, 90)
Unused subs: 30 Itandje, 20 Mascherano
Goals: Torres 12, Gerrard 90
Stats: (Derby – Liverpool)
Possession: 44% – 56%
Shots on target: 4 – 10
Shots off target: 5 – 12
Corners: 2 – 7
Fouls: 9 – 9
Referee: Alan Wiley