Carragher stands firm in real war of attrition
IF THERE is a fixture that reduces the pre-match fair-play handshake to an act of such pointlessness that it becomes the most empty of gestures, surely it is the Merseyside derby.
Such forced niceties may be demanded by protocol, but when Liverpool and Everton meet they are nothing more than a contrived prelude to battle. A Scouse Haka, if you like.
War was declared after 14 seconds on Saturday, when Jamie Carragher hit Steven Pienaar with a tackle of such ferocity that the South African shuddered from head to toe. "You have to make your presence felt from the start and that's what we did," Carragher, the Liverpool defender, said. The tone had been set, there was to be no going back.
The Premier League had done its bit, handing the unenviable responsibility for keeping the peace to Martin Atkinson, a referee who had not previously sent off a player this season.
Like the handshake, though, his appointment was an exercise in futility because by the end of a typically tempestuous and at times violent affair Atkinson had flashed a red card twice. The official may have reason to regret not using the ultimate sanction at his disposal on at least two more occasions.
"It was a very hard job for the referee because the players did not help him," Javier Mascherano, the Liverpool midfield player, said after Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Pienaar had taken the total of red cards proffered in the Merseyside derby to 18 in the past 36 meetings.
"It was a hard game with a lot of tackles, but this is the way it is in derby matches, they don't want to lose and we don't want to lose. Sometimes you can see some hard tackles because of this."
Kyrgiakos was sent-off for a dangerous two-footed lunge that curtailed the involvement of Marouane Fellaini, but having seen the challenge coming, the Belgian had shown studs and should arguably have received equal punishment. Pienaar was given his marching orders in stoppage-time for a second bookable offence but the one-game ban he will receive is in no way suitable punishment considering the first of his transgressions was the worst of the day, an over-the-ball challenge on Mascherano that seemed to get worse with every replay.
The desire to secure local bragging rights is such that tension and physicality is guaranteed but on this occasion there was the added spice of Everton attempting to prove that they are ready to usurp Liverpool as Merseyside's pre-eminent power and their neighbours desperate to cling to their top-four status.
Dirk Kuyt's headed goal ensured that it was Liverpool who achieved their aim and, unlike their win at Goodison Park two months earlier, this victory was fully merited.
David Moyes, perhaps befuddled having banged his head against a glass ceiling yet again, thought otherwise, arguing that Everton had deserved more. They had not. A single shot on target from open play against opponents who were a man down for an hour is compelling evidence that an opportunity to usurp their rivals was not just missed, it was balked at.
"Before the game we were confident and when they went to 10 men you think to yourself, 'It's going to be our day', but we lacked the guile in the final third to break them down," Phil Neville, the Everton captain, said. "We need to start winning away to top-four sides. We had an unbelievable opportunity at Arsenal and threw it away in the last minute and this was another chance. We've gone to top sides and got draws but want the next step now.
"We're getting more belief we can come to places like this and win, though. The gap has been closing for a couple of seasons and our performances have definitely been getting better. We seemed so near, but the final step's always the hardest."
Once hostilities had ceased, there was another round of handshakes and Liverpool had taken the battle honours.
"If there's one thing you hope to never get accused of in a Merseyside derby, it's that you lack fight and desire," Carragher said. On Saturday no one could possibly have said such a thing. (© The Times, London)
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Carragher, Kyrgiakos, Agger, Insua; Mascherano, Lucas; Kuyt (Skrtel, 90), Gerrard, Rodriguez (Aurelio, 90); Ngog (Babel, 63). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Aquilani, Riera, Degen.
Everton (4-4-1-1): Howard; Neville, Heitinga, Distin, Baines; Donovan, Osman (Yakubu, 72), Fellaini (Arteta, 40), Pienaar; Cahill; Saha (Anichebe, 72). Substitutes not used: Nash (gk), Bilyaletdinov, Senderos, Coleman.
Referee: MAtkinson (W Yorkshire).
Booked: Liverpool Kuyt, Carragher, Gerrard. Everton Pienaar, Heitinga, Anichebe.
Sent off: Liverpool Kyrgiakos. Everton Pienaar.
Man of the match: Carragher.