Everton 1 - 1 Liverpool
Another derby, another draw; honours even and bragging rights postponed for another day. As always, the point will do but with Liverpool struggling for form and the pressure mounting on the soon-to-be-sacked Brendan Rodgers, this was another opportunity for an arguably superior Everton side to claim a first victory over the reds for five years that went begging.
As has become customary in the wake of the Blues' poor derby record, the psychological aspect of this fixture dominated the build-up to this Goodison derby all week. While the inferiority complex is gone, however – and with it the mental hang-up that has paralysed Everton teams against Liverpool in the past – psychology did play a role in Blues' performance today in that they allowed themselves to be dragged into a scrap when they didn't need to be.
The absence of Steven Gerrard and Liverpool's well-publicised lack of Scouse talent in their starting XI meant that this had the potential to be the least "derby-like" derby in recent memory but, feee=ding off the crowd's fevered energy, Roberto Martinez's men lapsed into a frenetic demeanour when you just felt that a more considered approach more akin to the Catalan's usual modus operandi would have served them better.
Part of it was likely down to an apparent instruction from the manager to hit Romelu Lukaku early with quick balls from the back and midfield but many of those attempts to prey on any weakness in Rodgers' back three often resulted in possession being given away and Liverpool mounting attacks of their own.
The upshot was that it was the visitors who looked the more composed of the two sides early on and who had the better of the first half hour, forcing man of the match Phil Jagielka into a number of crucial interventions at the heart of an inexperienced back four that included three players making their first starts in a derby.
Ably assisted by Gareth Barry, who had another excellent game patrolling in front of and inside his own penalty area, Everton's youthful defence repelled almost everything that was thrown at them in the first half, in the face of determination from Philippe Coutinho and James Milner to strike the first blow for the beleagured Rodgers.
It was no surprise that it was that pair who carved out the visitors' best chance of the half in the 26th minute, with Milner latching onto the Brazilian's impressive pass towards the six-yard box, only to be foiled by Howard's foot which prevented the ball from sneaking inside his near post.
That sparked some overdue activity at the other end where Everton finally benefited from a refereeing decision by Martin Atkinson in their favour when Barkley was tripped by Emre Can in a central position. A controversial appointment to begin with given his appalling history taking charge of this fixture, Atkinson was gallingly one-sided all afternoon but Barkley almost profited from the rare free kick by depositing the resulting set piece onto Steven Naismith's head. The Scot was denied by a superb one-handed save by Simon Mignolet, however, and the Belgian 'keeper was on hand three minutes later to push James McCarthy's goalbound shot past his post despite being partially unsighted by Brendan Galloway in front of him.
With Liverpool winning a succession of corners as a result of dogged Everton defending, there was always the danger that the Blues' fallability from dead-ball situations might be their undoing, and so it proved four minutes before half time. Danny Ings, hitherto a largely benign threat apart from one early shot that he flashed over the bar, dropped off Barkley as the corner was floated in and, with Howard static and rooted to his goal line, he had the simple task of nodding past the American to hand the reds the lead.
In every derby in which a goal has been scored since Everton last won, Liverpool have scored the first goal and the Blues were once again forced to chase the game. Thankfully, the equaliser was swift and it came from what was perhaps Gerard Deulofeu's only meaningful contribution during his 55 frustrated minutes on the field (if you don't count the fact that it was his profligacy in possession that required emergency action from the impressive Ramiro Funes Mori in conceding the corner that led to Ings's goal).
The Spaniard whipped a ball on from the right that confused Can into a botched clearance that bounced off Martin Skrtel and sat up invitingly for Lukaku to rifle past Mignolet and send Goodison wild and set the game up perfectly for Everton to step up a gear in the second half in an effort to go on and win.
It had become clearly during the first half that that sheer exuberance was not going to be enough to see the Blues through and while they were a bit more measured in their approach after the break, they would find chances frustratingly hard to come by. While Lukaku was running himself ragged up front and Everton looked at their best when Barkley was trying to orchestrate things in the middle, there was, unfortunatrly, a noticeable lack of quality in their approach that underscored on this occasion how sorely missed were Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines. While Tyias Browning and Galloway acquitted themselves well in defence (imperiously in the latter's case), neither could offer the guile and unpredictability that the first-choice fullbacks can often produce and it hampered the Blues' attempts to break Liverpool down.
Meanwhile, the fact that Barkley was targeted throughout as the Blues' main playmaker was compounded by Atkinson's almost shameless bias towards the visitors. The 21-year-old had become ensconsed in a spate of "handbags" in the first half in which Can was the clear aggressor but the referee took the easy way out and booked both players. And when Lucas Leiva was belatedly yellow-carded for fouling Barkley with 21 minutes to go, Atkinson bottled it when the Brazilian cynically tripped McCarthy from behind. The official would also take no action when Mamadou Sakho clattered through Lukaku in the box with minimal contact on the ball and the kind of reckless challenge that would almost certainly have resulted in a free kick had it been anywhere else on the field... and had it been any other referee.
In between, Everton had assumed the greater control of the match and, up until the last 10 minutes or so, had more or less reduced Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge to footnotes in the contest. They couldn't carve out many clear-cut openings, however, but Barkley had the best of them when he led a three-on-two counter-attack midway through the second half and elected to go it alone, curling a shot a foot the wrong side of the post with Lukaku on the shoulder of the last man.
The introduction of Lennon for Deulofeu, who had spent most of the game pinned to the right touchline and frequently run into trouble when he was given the ball, briefly threatened to open the game up in Everton's favour but a couple of decent low crosses were repelled by the reds' defence, while Lukaku forced a parrying save from Mignolet and Coutinho prompted a similar stop by Howard a couple of minutes later in front of the Park End.
By the closing minutes, fear of losing the game appeared to supercede the need to try and commit sufficient numbers forward to win the match and it petered out with honours even at the final whistle.
The disappointment at not earning the three vital points that would have lifted them into fourth place will be felt more keenly by Everton, who may have contributed to Rodgers's demise without having the satisfaction of seeing him off with a tanned backside. Having got back on level terms on the stroke of half-time, the hope was that Lukaku's goal would have spurred the Blues on to a more cohesive and purposeful second period. Ultimately, though their overall display was decent, they lacked the composure and the quality in their play and therefore had to be content with not losing the bi-annual Merseyside blood feud.
The result preserves Martinez's record of just one defeat so far this season but the nature of the performance will have Evertonians hoping for a more free-flowing and accomplished display when Manchester Unitd come to town after the international break.