Sunday 24 September 2017

Lacklustre Liverpool send Sturridge SOS

Liverpool 1 Everton 1

Everton's Leighton Baines takes on Lazar Markovic of Liverpool on Saturday. Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Everton's Leighton Baines takes on Lazar Markovic of Liverpool on Saturday. Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Phil Jagielka scores a late goal to level the scores at 1-1. Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Liverpool's Mario Balotelli looks on during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Everton at Anfield. Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Chris Bascombe

It can be only a matter of time before Brendan Rodgers sends an SOS to the remaining member of his SAS.

Five of Liverpool's seven Merseyside derby goals last season came from their lauded former striking partnership and although one half is never coming back, Daniel Sturridge is becoming a monument to the idea of absence making a heart grow fonder.

Rodgers might need to handcuff Sturridge to a plane seat for Wednesday's Champions League trip to Basle, or at the very least convince him the pain barrier need not always be a permanent obstacle to playing.

The Liverpool manager's exasperation as the Premier League leaders extend the gap over the runners-up of last season will be compounded by the fact that a calf strain has kept his striker out for so long.

Worrying

Some derby veterans would not miss a minute, let alone three weeks, with such a knock. Others have a disposition for worrying about aggravating an injury in their early twenties that may cause them to have a limp in their forties.

Sturridge's return should coincide with the naming of Roy Hodgson's European Championship squad.

If he is summoned into the international fold when his mismanagement by England has been so detrimental to his club, you could forgive the Liverpool coach for dashing to St George's Park and dragging his striker back to Melwood.

It still needed the sweetest of unstoppable strikes from Phil Jagielka to earn Everton a point, but the prime-time series chronicling the difference between the Merseyside clubs' fortunes now and five months ago shows no immediate sign of being pulled from the schedules.

A year ago, Steven Gerrard's goal - an expertly-placed free-kick in the 65th minute - would have been the catalyst for Liverpool to finish off their opponents with the frequency and potency of their counter-attacks.

However, without the same pace and composure on the break, Liverpool instead looked as if they had retreated in a doomed pursuit of a clean sheet and Jagielka duly administered the punishment.

Despite his irritation at Liverpool drawing a game that seemed won, there was still some encouragement for Rodgers. Adam Lallana was a menace from the first whistle and even Mario Balotelli received an ovation for indulging in the unfamiliar pastime of 'tracking back'.

The Italian, who had a Liver bird sculpted into his hair for the occasion, has yet to score a Premier League goal for the Reds and failed to take advantage of a number of decent opportunities.

Balotelli has a reputation as a hothead and was the target of a number of robust challenges, but did not react and was heavily involved in the game.

Rodgers said: "Mario needs to focus on the game and I made that point beforehand. This is a game where emotions are high and it can be difficult. But you're going to be in with a greater chance to win as long as you've got 11 players on the field.

"And I think overall in his time here, he's responded very, very well.

"I thought his work rate was excellent. His pressure, his physique at the top end of the field for us was very good and he looked like he could get a goal.

"I was disappointed he didn't score, but as long as he's working well and working hard, he will get goals."

Rodgers also had words of praise for Lallana, declaring: "I thought Adam was outstanding.

"To come into his first derby game and play with that quality and that intensity.

"And he played the whole game during the week against Middlesbrough, penalties and all, so to deliver that performance was great because it shows he's getting fitter and fitter with each game."

Everton were struggling to put any pressure on the much-criticised Liverpool defence until the pre-match prediction that an under-fire centre-half would have a major influence proved prophetic - although not quite as predicted.

Jagielka struck a 25-yarder of such power that, had it not found the top corner, at least one supporter on the Kop would have spent the evening in accident and emergency.

For Everton manager Roberto Martinez, the late intervention prevented an inevitable inquest into his side's timid attacking contribution.

For all the focus on the £16m Balotelli, the £28m Romelu Lukaku can be just as erratic.

The Belgian left no impression on Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren, while the work rate of Steven Naismith was designed to nullify Gerrard as much as offer an attacking threat.

Martinez would still have felt secure enough with the classy John Stones and Jagielka hinting that they will be his first-choice pairing for the foreseeable future - Sylvain Distin was not even a substitute.

Challenge

However, just as Liverpool lament the absence of Sturridge, the Everton manager needs Ross Barkley and Seamus Coleman out of rehabilitation soon if he is to challenge for a Champions League position.

Both Rodgers and Martinez can argue that injuries are behind their poor league placing. But it also suggests their pre-season confidence of having assembled more strength in depth was misplaced.

There is overtime to be worked to ensure that when they next meet, there is far more than that miserable derby-day consolation of mere local pride at stake.

Liverpool defender Mamadou Sakho apologised for leaving Anfield before kick-off after being dropped from the squad.

The French defender said that he made "a bad choice" following his disappointment. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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