Thursday 21 September 2017

Gerrard passes derby torch but rivals fail to ignite

Merseyside clash reveals vulnerabilities lurking in both sides, says Dion Fanning

'It was bewildering that Steven Gerrard remained for 90 minutes while others like Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling were replaced in the second half'
'It was bewildering that Steven Gerrard remained for 90 minutes while others like Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling were replaced in the second half'

Dion Fanning

In the end, the only thing that made this game notable for Steven Gerrard was the camera following him as he walked off the field at the end of a flat Merseyside derby.

This acknowledgement of a milestone was noticed by the Everton supporters who recognised the significance of the moment, the passing of another landmark as Gerrard prepares to depart English football and they did the one thing they could do at that moment: they began to boo. It would have been wrong if, after all this time, they had sunk to sentimentality.

They had nothing to boo about and they should have been well disposed towards Gerrard as this was not the player who once had the potential to alter the course of a game with a moment of stunning brilliance.

It was Gerrard's 33rd Merseyside derby and his final one unless the two teams meet in the later stages of the Europa League, something which will be another blow for the lesser European tournament if yesterday's game is any indication.

Afterwards Roberto Martinez sounded like a man leaving an arthouse film that had gone on too long, describing the match as "interesting" and "fascinating".

The fixture has usually provided more than that and often Gerrard has been at the centre of it.

Liverpool, like Dublin, is a city small enough to nurture a rumour and big enough for it to gather some fury.

Last week there was a micro-rumour that Everton would provide a guard of honour for Gerrard before the game, an idea as preposterous as some of the others that have followed him around over the years.

Of course there was no guard of honour and perhaps his finest achievement was to stay on the field, not because of the type of impetuosity which saw him sent off in his second Merseyside derby, but because it was bewildering that he remained for 90 minutes while others like Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling were replaced in the second half.

Our old friend 'the form book' is supposed to go out the window when Everton and Liverpool meet but sometimes it stays very much in the window, the centrepiece of a large display.

Last season's games were thrilling encounters between two sides enjoying, to varying degrees, a season they couldn't quite believe while this year's meetings have revealed the vulnerabilities and insecurities that lurk beneath the surface.

Liverpool remain 12 points clear of Everton but both managers could be encouraged by certain aspects. Brendan Rodgers could hail the arrival of Jordan Ibe, a teenager who showed no fear in his first derby, while Emre Can continues to demonstrate that sometimes Liverpool's transfer committee can get it right. "He was a Rolls Royce at the back," Rodgers said afterwards.

Martinez could be content with the solidity of his side, the return of James McCarthy and a six-match unbeaten run ahead of what he described as "the most important month of the season".

Yet the home side failed to have a shot on target until Seamus Coleman drew a save from Simon Mignolet in the 87th minute and Romelu Lukaku demonstrated a rare cunning, finding himself offside when at times it appeared impossible.

Rodgers had earned plenty of praise, and directed some his own way, for the altering of Liverpool's system which had seen them lose only once since the week when they were knocked out of the Champions League and beaten 3-0 by Manchester United.

Everton provided a tougher examination initially than some they have faced in the league recently. McCarthy started his first game in 2015 and he was key part of a midfield which offered a more solid base than Liverpool's, particularly once the influential Lucas went off and was replaced by the less influential Joe Allen.

Raheem Sterling was troubling for Everton offering signs once again that he was not just Liverpool's best hope on the night but for many nights to come.

When Gerrard departs, Sterling, Coutinho and maybe now Ibe will be required to provide the drama. They will never live it with the intensity of Gerrard who, even on this flat night, drew the ire from the home supporters. "Tactically he was very good," Rodgers said, "he drove the team on."

The selection of Ibe had come as a surprise. Recently recalled from loan at Derby County, Ibe gave glimpses of his talent in an unforgiving arena, hitting the post with a stunning shot from 20 yards after gliding forward as he continued to do all evening.

Gerrard would once have been the leader of that group of individuals but last night was further evidence that he is making the right decision in heading for California.

He drew one save from Joel Robles from a free-kick and came closer with an overhead volley which was cleared by Steven Naismith. In the first half, Everton harnessed the home crowd's energy and surged forward collectively with Seamus Coleman making use of the space on the right behind Alberto Moreno but Simon Mignolet was not threatened.

If Gerrard was tactically good, he had his moments of being bad, passing the ball straight out of play when he was trying to find Ibe on the wing and often being static while Liverpool's young players demonstrated that they are the future now.

They pushed Everton back as they started the second half brightly and the arrival of Daniel Sturridge brought another threat, Gerrard could have tried a return pass when he was picked out by Sturridge on the edge of the box but instead he curled a shot wide.

Everton had a surge in the final minutes, helped by the belated introduction of Ross Barkley, but neither side was strong enough to win and Rodgers instead could take comfort in another clean sheet and the promise for the future.

"What was pleasing tonight in such an intense atmosphere was the composure of the young players," he said.

Liverpool play Tottenham on Tuesday in a game which will be a tougher test as they try to climb into the top four. There will be further milestones for Gerrard in the coming months and he may need others to inject them with the magic missing at Goodison Park.

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