Sunday, 29 November 2009 – Premier League – Result
Everton 0-2 Liverpool
Liverpool won the derby, closing the gap to fourth place and keeping a clean sheet.
After the despair of this season so far it should have been a massive boost for Liverpool supporters.
And for the vast majority it was.
Derby matches always follow their own rules. Fouls that might attract a lifetime ban will be let go in a derby match. If the two sides are at opposite ends of the table you’ll often not be able to tell. It’s rarely a moment of footballing genius that gets the points and the headlines – it’s more likely to be a dodgy penalty or a goal from someone who “should” have been sent off.
It’s a pity that’s how it is – but that’s how it is. It always has been, and probably always will be. If Everton and Liverpool meet in Europe later in the season it might be different, but with English referees in domestic competitions no player leaves the field without being battered and bruised.
In Liverpool’s case few players entered the field without bruises, strains and painkilling medication. Liverpool went into the match with battered pride, but came out of it knowing they did what was needed.
Were they lucky? At times, yes. The opener came from a deflected Mascherano shot. Pepe Reina fumbled a spinning shot that might have trickled over the line on another day.
But Reina also showed why Rafa is desperate for the club to find the funds to offer him a new contract as soon as possible, a double save from an unmarked Cahill and Fellaini on the follow-up stopped Everton from turning the game into Liverpool’s latest nightmare.
And if the clichés are true about luck evening itself out Liverpool have a fair bit of good luck to look forward to now this season.
It wasn’t the sort of performance that goes on its own DVD in a club’s official shop, well, unless the scoreline is the other way round and it’s the Everton Club Shop. But it was full of encouraging signs.
With Liverpool going ahead after 12 minutes it meant Everton had to come out and attack, and that’s what they did.
David Ngog – a player with the right attitude and lots of time on his side but far from the finished product – was up front in place of the injured Fernando Torres. Steven Gerrard was fit to play – but far from fit. Still, a less-than-fit Gerrard is far better than most other players.
Dirk Kuyt – who would move centrally later in the game and get the second – was there as always, working hard on the right, but Rafa had a problem on the left.
Ryan Babel is still out following his injury a week before although there’s no guarantee he’ll be back in the squad when he recovers from it. He’d probably be third choice behind Albert Riera and Yossi Benayoun but neither is fully fit and both started on the bench. That left Rafa with little other choice than to use Fabio Aurelio there. Aurelio is a wing-back more than a winger and it’s highly unlikely he’ll ever be given this role when the squad is at anything like full-strength.
The front four was far from perfect and Liverpool’s midfield pair of Lucas and Mascherano are hardly the attacking types. It’s no surprise that Liverpool erred on the side of caution after going ahead.
Of course that approach gives Rafa’s critics something to complain about even after a win, but Rafa’s critics always find something to complain about.
Liverpool fans often refer to fans of their smaller neighbours as “the bitters”, a tag that comes from the seemingly unending list of letdowns the blue quarter blame on Liverpool in some way. If the list does have an end to it few people have seen it. In the right circumstances it’s tough to listen to – without bursting out laughing. And the more serious they get, the harder it is to stifle the chuckles.
Unfortunately for Liverpool a number of those “bitters” seemed by accident to grow up as Reds. It’s only a small number, even though the noise they make can make it seem far larger. But they’re as bitter as any of those spluttering from across the park about wrongs done by referees in the days when balls still had laces. It’s natural to be annoyed with them, but better just to laugh at them.
It’s still far too early to say that this one league win will silence them. It’s hard to know just what would silence them; their main reasons for wanting Rafa out are lost in the mists of time. But this win would have left some of them unsure whether to laugh or cry.
They want Rafa out and although they’ve forgotten why they first decided that they’ve had new reasons this season. The main reason is one that all Reds fans agree on: the results have not been good enough. It’s been extremely disappointed. But most Reds fans will at least look at the circumstances of each game, rather than just reading the match stats, before deciding on what they think made it all go so bad. Most fans want to see it turned round.
At times it can make Liverpool fans sound like their neighbours when going over the reasons the results haven’t been going well. If it hadn’t been for the injuries, red cards, beach balls… Those factors aren’t to blame for the results – but it’s wrong to dismiss them out of hand.
The critics will ignore the impact of injuries and illness on the outcome of a game – but they ignore the outcome itself when it’s a win! Instead it’s all about a poor performance and another game without Aquilani getting involved.
Most of this group don’t criticise the manager as fans concerned about the club. It may have started that way but it’s evolved beyond that now.
It’s personal, they want Rafa gone, and no amount of silverware will change that. They’d join the celebrations but before the champagne went flat they’d be ripping it all apart and putting it down as good luck, poor opponents and all done despite the manager. Of course they’ll deny this right now –and Rafa needs to win that silverware before the theory can be put to the test.
It’s also personal in another sense for some. Ever since the long-forgotten day they first stuck their neck out about Rafa they’ve been trying hard to strengthen their argument. It’s as if it’s become their own personal challenge – to prove to their friends and colleagues that they were right all along, that Rafa shouldn’t be the Liverpool manager.
In other cases it’s obvious that their love of Liverpool is what drives them on; it’s unfair to suggest all the critics put saving face ahead of the wellbeing of the club. Some of them are the most dedicated supporters Liverpool have. But it’s almost as if they’ve become over-protective of the club, like a mother who decides the girl just isn’t good enough for their lad. The decision was made a long time ago, based on some understandable concerns, and now they just want the relationship to end.
But they are no longer capable of being objective or balanced; it’s a long time since they’ve used an open mind to assess the situation. Now they’ve made their minds up they find evidence to back that up. They ignore anything else. Gossip is dismissed as hearsay if it defends the manager and embraced as cold hard fact if it attacks him. They’d be outraged if they were judged the same way in their own lives, but pointing this out will often be dismissed as not irrelevant because Rafa’s wages means he should expect to be treated that way!
Whatever their reasons, it’s far from helpful for the club. If they tried harder to keep an open mind they might still find evidence that is compelling and difficult to challenge. Instead they cherry-pick stats, repeat rumours that smear the manager without a thought as to who might have started those rumours, spinning facts like the best politicians.
Rafa isn’t without blame for the ‘plight’ the club are now in – but it’s only a plight when based on the higher standards Liverpool fans have set since the Spaniard arrived at the club.
Liverpool are now fifth in the table. Thirteen points from top after leaders Chelsea embarrassed Arsenal. Arsenal are above Liverpool in fourth, two points ahead with a games in hand, behind third-placed Spurs who are three points ahead of the Reds with no games in hand.
There are 24 more games to play. It’s not even December yet.
In the season before Rafa came to Anfield Liverpool fans would genuinely be delighted to be so close to a Champions League qualifying spot with so much of the season still to run, and pretty pleased to be favourites for the current season’s UEFA Cup, as it was then known.
But now fans want more, and that’s understandable.
Rafa got them to second last season so the expectation was for that to be at least matched this season. After five years of Champions League football featuring one quarter-final, one semi-final, two finals and of course the big prize itself, it’s always going to be a disappointment to drop down to the Europa competition for the second half of a season.
But it’s Rafa who brought us to those levels of expectation. Instead of complaining about how he’s made us worse than he first made us, how about looking at what could be changed? Expecting him to be infallible is as ridiculous as blaming him for the 14 barren years he walked into.
Liverpool need to turn this forced win into another three points against Blackburn. They need a run of wins, and it doesn’t matter how they are won as much as it matters that they are won.
And it’s important to realise how much that is the priority now for every game. Winning is the priority.
That’s why Aquilani didn’t come on, not just because he’d be a target for the likes of Cahill. Rafa was clearly happy with the efforts being put in by the players Aquilani might come on for and didn’t want to change something that was still working: “Today was a very tough game so to change a player, Lucas, Mascherano or Gerrard, who were working hard, was a difficult decision.”
Rafa is right to refer to the injuries suffered by the rest of the team, but sees some light at the end of the tunnel: “After the time with a lot of injuries, some players are coming back and then we will see the difference hopefully in the next weeks.”
He tried to be diplomatic about the alehouse tactics his players were up against, saying: “It was very difficult. We knew that it could be physical given the position of both teams and that they needed to win. We were working hard and had one or two chances and were maybe lucky with the deflection.”
Liverpool’s much-maligned zonal-marking system played its part in the clean sheet, Rafa pleased with how his players dealt with Everton’s tactics: “They were playing long balls and set-pieces and we were trying to defend and working very hard. The defenders were really good. Their full-backs and keeper were always kicking the ball long and it was difficult, but we knew it would be like that.”
Rafa admitted Liverpool defended for most of the game, saying: “We were playing counter-attack because we were under pressure all the time, but I think that we had two or three very good counter-attacks.”
Maybe those counter attacks would have been more fruitful had Torres been on the pitch – but Rafa is hopeful he’ll be ready for the next match: “”He will be working very hard and we will see if he can be available.”
Everton: 24 Howard, 2 Hibbert, 3 Baines, 4 Yobo (Neill 86), 5 Heitinga, 15 Distin, 7 Bilyaletdinov, 17 Cahill (Yakubu 82), 20 Pienaar, 25 Fellaini, 11 Jo (Saha 66)
Subs: 1 Nash, 23 Neill, 31 Coleman, 19 Gosling, 8 Saha, 22 Yakubu, 37 Baxter
Liverpool: 25 Reina, 2 Johnson, 5 Agger, 12 Aurelio (Riera 78), 22 Insua, 23 Carragher, 8 Gerrard, 20 Mascherano, 21 Lucas, 18 Kuyt, 24 Ngog (Benayoun 75)
Subs: 1 Cavalieri, 16 Kyrgiakos, 37 Skrtel, 4 Aquilani, 11 Riera, 15 Benayoun, 31 El Zhar
Goals: Yobo (og) 12, Kuyt 80
Stats: (EVERTON – LIVERPOOL)
Possession: 52% – 48%
Attempts on target: 8 – 7
Attempts off target: 4 – 2
Corners: 6 – 4
Fouls: 15 – 12
Referee: Alan Wiley