Everton 0 - 1 Liverpool
Evertonians have been calling for fight from their team for much of what has become a frustratingly poor season. It arrived in the form of a 2-1 win over Arsenal last Tuesday that Blues fans hoped would mark some sort of turning point in the campaign.
It certainly instilled hope that the desire shown in that game could be carried over into the Merseyside derby this evening and that Everton could begin addressing an awful run of results against Liverpool over the last decade. The requisite passion was there but it was wholly unmatched in terms of quality and, sadly, Jürgen Klopp’s horde was able to summon enough of it to tip the game their direction in stoppage time.
Fortune didn’t so much favour the brave — the home side had given almost everything in terms of commitment, some of it mis-placed, as it was when Ross Barkley lunged in dangerously on Jordan Henderson in the second half was perhaps fortunate to only see yellow — as it did reward the more composed of the two teams when Daniel Sturridge’s 94th-minute shot came back off the post and Sadio Mané converted to settle the game.
Ronald Koeman will no doubt be galled by the sight of Ashley Williams standing stock still as the Senegalese reacted quicker to the rebound, just as he will rue the significant disruption to his game plan when James McCarthy was forced off at half time with another injury. It robbed the Dutchman of much of the energy in his midfield and the manner in which his side dropped back to accommodate the veteran Gareth Barry played right into Klopp’s hands.
Koeman shouldn't be able to deny just how little quality Everton showed for the vast majority of this game, however, particularly in the second half where the Blues’ performance degenerated into a disjointed sequence of poor distribution from the back, an absence of leadership in midfield and almost non-existent hold-up play from his forward line.
Romelu Lukaku, hopelessly isolated for the most part, had little support but he did himself few favours with one of his worst performances in a blue jersey. His control was sloppy, his dribbling clumsy, his pressing erratic and yet, with a bit more luck as he tried to barrel through as four Liverpool players collapsed around him in the closing stages, he might have been the one to plunder a winner.
Meanwhile Barkley, the great creative hope in the side, was equally dreadful, if not more so, encapsulating the lack of composure and guile in Koeman’s team in a display where the only mark he left in the contest was on the ankle of Henderson. The 23-year-old held up his end of bargain in terms of aggression but at the expense of anything genuinely productive when he had the ball at his feet.
The evening had begun promisingly enough for Everton. With just the one change of Ramiro Funes Mori coming in for the suspended Phil Jagielka enforced upon the manager, they appeared to have picked up from where they left off against Arsenal. There was no shortage of tempo or purpose about their play in the first half and twice they got forward down the right flank in the early going to put crosses into the box.
Aaron Lennon, who started well but faded badly as the game wore on, saw an 11th-minute shot ricochet off a defender but Barkley wasn’t able to react in time to collect the loose ball in space in the area. Enner Valencia smacked a disappointing direct free kick into the wall a minute later but Everton’s best chance of the half was served up by Lennon — a low cross from the left that Ragnar Klavan got a foot to to take it off Lukaku’s toe as he was about to pull the trigger from a central position.
Nathaniel Clyne delivered a similar cross looking for Divock Origi at one end but he hammered wide with a Blues defender in close attendance. At the other, Barkley dragged one shot wide from the edge of the box and Funes Mori planted a header off a corner wide of the other post as the first half ended goalless.
Having required treatment for a leg injury shortly before the interval and then carried on gingerly until half time, it wasn’t a surprise when McCarthy failed to emerge for the second half. He was replaced by Barry but there was a noticeable drop off in Everton’s shape and energy in midfield, all of which contributed to growing confidence in Liverpool’s ranks. Where the Blues were unable to sustain any kind of attacking momentum, the ball would come back on their defence more and more as the second period progressed.
They were carved open just five minutes after the restart when Firmino found himself in behind the last defender for the first time but Stekelenburg denied him by coming off his line and blocking his effort to life the ball over him. Clyne’s shot from the rebound was charged down.
Barry meanwhile floated a teasing ball into the Liverpool box that Lukaku steered over with his head before Stekelenburg was forced off with a leg injury of his own following a collision with Leighton Baines. The fullback had done well to slide in and force Mané into firing just wide but it was at the expense of his goalie who hobbled off to be replaced by Joel Robles.
The Spaniard earned his corn with a terrific save to foil Firmino in the 80th minute as the Brazilian caught Barkley napping at a corner and despatched a side-foot volley searching for the bottom corner but Robles dived to his left to push it away to safety. His introduction for Stekelenburg had robbed Koeman of one more outfield substitution, although, of the options available to him, perhaps only Kevin Mirallas offered any hope of bringing something genuinely different to proceedings and he was overlooked in favour of Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
The youngster had a few promising touches and put himself about gamely but a victory already looked beyond the Blues who were unable to muster much more beyond a Williams header (Everton's only effort on target in 100 minutes of football) from a free kick that made for a comfortable catch for Simon Mignolet in the Liverpool goal.
Nevertheless, Everton looked to have ground out an unspectacular draw as the match dragged into eight minutes of stoppage time. Lady Luck would smile once more on the Reds though when Daniel Sturridge, himself a second-half substitute, was shepherded across the edge of the box by Baines before he screwed an awkward shot goal-wards with his left foot. It evaded the wrong-footed Robles, came back off the base of the post and Mané was rewarded for following the shot in between two static blue shirts with a simple conversion into the empty net.
1-0 almost became 2-0 as Everton desperately chased an equaliser but Coleman did brilliantly to get back and slide Firmino’s goal-bound shot behind for a corner.
Koeman expressed his disappointment at the fact that side had been beaten in injury time but described their performance as “outstanding.” Depressingly, it was anything but and just one shot on target with a paltry 32% of possession on your own turf tells its own story. The ingredients were there — the Old Lady was loud and raucous and the fight was there in the players for the most part — but Everton sorely lack genuine quality and were, on the whole, inferior to the team that will go into Christmas sitting in second place.
That remains the sickening reality for a fanbase that does not deserve to be looking back on just one Merseyside derby win in the last 20. With progress being made off the pitch, signalled by major shareholder Farhad Moshiri’s consolidation of the club’s debt under a single interest-free loan, the long-term future looks brighter and there is hope that the Blues will have the resources to be challenging up at the top where they belong.
Tonight, however, was merely an extension of the last three months — a stark illustration of the rebuilding job that remains to be done on the field before Everton’s re-emergence as a Premier League power can become a reality.
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