Liverpool v Everton

7 02 2010

Both sides went into the Merseyside derby on a good run of form. Despite slow starts to their respective seasons, it had been some time since either side had suffered defeat in the league. In fact, the last time Everton had lost in the Premier League prior to Saturday’s game was back in November, when they lost 2-0 to Liverpool.

As if the earlier loss wasn’t pressure enough, the history of the fixture didn’t bode well for Everton who had failed to come away from Anfield with a win in their previous 10 attempts. Not that Liverpool went into the game without any pressure, still residing outside of top 4 and having failed to win at Anfield in either of the sides’ two encounters there last season.

The game is always likely to be an exciting one when these two clubs meet. In fact, in 7 of the last 10 seasons there has been at least one red card shown in a Merseyside derby. In 05/06 there was a total of 4 red cards shown, 2 in both matches.

This game proved to be no different, with Kyrgiakos heading for the tunnel just past the half hour mark, although nobody could have complained if Pienaar had been shown a red card for a dangerous tackle shortly before that. Pienaar did eventually head off for an early bath for a second yellow card, although it was so deep in injury time that he would have barely made it to the changing room before the final whistle sounded.

In the last decade, a red card in a Merseyside derby has never resulted in a draw. As such, Everton must have been encouraged to see Kyrgiakos go so early on. Unfortunately for the visitors they also lost Fellaini to injury as a result of that two-footed tackle. The holding midfielder, who believes he is playing the best football of his career right now, was 100% for both tackles and passes while he was on the pitch, although the Toffees had a capable replacement on the bench in Arteta.

In the end, the red card may have been a blessing in disguise for Liverpool. The loss of Kyrgiakos forced them to defend in numbers, making it extremely difficult for Everton to score. In fact, the visitors managed only 4 shots from then on.

While Everton may have been encouraged by the advantage of having an extra player, they failed to make it count. They seemed unable to create chances with Liverpool putting 10 men behind the ball. Meanwhile, at the other end, Liverpool were using set pieces to their advantage. Although they found their chances much more restricted after the sending-off, 7 attempts in the opening 35 minutes compared to just 4 after, Liverpool made theirs count.

Despite taking the shots early on (incidentally Liverpool took more shots prior to the sending off than Everton managed all game), Liverpool were struggling to make real chances. The shots taken from inside the area all came from set-pieces and none were on target. The one shot that was technically from open play was from distance after Fellaini only partially cleared a corner and was easily blocked by Baines. The only other Liverpool shot to come from open play during the match came just before the goal and was also blocked.

If Liverpool were to score it was going to come from a set piece, especially after the red card. In the end it was clever play from Kuyt, getting himself between the keeper and his defender and using his strength to hold his position, coupled with a superb corner from Gerrard that broke the deadlock. Neutrals would have done well to have stopped watching then.

From that point on, Liverpool put all their energy into defending their lead. Their only shot after Kuyt’s header put them in front was from a direct free kick. To give credit where credit’s due, Liverpool saw out their win well. It may not have been exciting to watch but they restricted Everton to just one shot as they chased an equaliser. That this shot came from outside the penalty area and from well to the left of goal shows the desperate measures Everton were forced to turn to in pursuit of a point.

In the end this game won’t be remembered for high quality football. The two red cards also seem fairly pedestrian given this fixture’s history of sendings off, where red cards are commonplace and two in the same game are not unheard of. In fact, when Everton last won at Anfield no less than 3 players saw red. Rather this game should be remembered as an aerial battle.

That’s to say that this game was won and lost in air. Both sides took 8 corners apiece, and while Liverpool scored from one, Everton didn’t even manage a shot from theirs. Ordinarily a threat from corners, Cahill was fairly absent. In particular it is Cahill who may feel he lost this aerial battle. Just before the break he had perhaps the best chance of the game with an unmarked header and most of the goal to aim at. Admittedly he had little time to react as the ball came his way, but he will no doubt be disappointed to have headed over from such close range. Given the way the chances went after that, it could have made a big difference to the game.

But if they are looking at what could have been, Everton fans must surely wonder how they might have fared had Fellaini not been stretchered off so early on. A formidable aerial presence both going forward and in defence, he was perhaps the single player most capable of making a difference in this match. Fans can only hope that his scan confirms the initial diagnosis that nothing was broken in that challenge.

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The Dangers of Playing in Europe

3 02 2010

February brings with it the return of European competition. England boasts an impressive 6 teams still involved in either the Champions League or the Europa League, the same number as Germany and just one less the Spain. For the teams in question (Arsenal, Chelsea, Man Utd, Everton, Fulham and Liverpool) this can be both a blessing and a curse.

For the three involved in the Champions League, to be around in the final 16 and pushing for an appearance in the final is fairly routine. They have the squad depth to cope with the additional games in the schedule and still be competitive. In fact all three have made it to the final at least once in the last 4 years. Even so, only United have managed to combine domestic and European success in recent years, and when Arsenal finished as runners-up in 2006 it coincided with the first time in 10 years that they finished outside the top 3 in the league. And they fell short of Liverpool in third place by some way.

Nonetheless, even with the injuries they have, fans of the top three can look forward to the European fixtures, rather than worry about the effect it may be having on their team. The same cannot be said of the three teams in the Europa League knockout stages.

All three sides have had their form questioned at some point this year and all can point to big names on the injury list in response. The question is, what will the midweek games and trips abroad do for the teams? When teams don’t have the depth to rotate their players the core members of the squad end up seeing significant increases in minutes played, which can have negative effects on performances both domestically and in Europe. Worse still is the greater potential for fresh injuries.

David Moyes admits that upcoming games in Europe can impact upon his team selection, and played a part in his handling of Arteta’s recovery after a lengthy stint on the sidelines. So when squads are already stretched, fans have to weigh the thrill of European competition with the potential costs. If a club wants to bring in the money and the players to really compete in Europe, they first need to ensure they qualify through the league on a regular basis.

But it’s not all bad.

European games aren’t just exciting for the fans. They motivate the players too. Sometimes a side that has fallen into a post-Christmas slump can find that the renewed focus on Europe is just what they need. In the middle of a long season it suddenly gives players something concrete to aim for, it requires them to step up their game and it gets the most out of players because these are the games they look forward to.

The difference is, while Fulham are rock bottom of the form table right now and, in that respect at least, have nothing to lose from playing in Europe, both Everton and Liverpool have managed to put together a decent string of results. They can only hope that the additional games don’t jeopardise all their recent good work. In particular Everton, who have managed to overcome a dreadful start to the season to put themselves in with an outside chance of taking a European spot for next year, have a frightful fixture list for February. In 23 days they play 4 of the current top 5 sides, and Sporting twice.

Such is the paradox of European competition. Fringe European sides, such as Everton and Fulham, strive to qualify in the hope of attracting higher calibre players. Yet, the following season’s additional fixtures prove too much for all but the deepest of squads and they fail to adequately build upon it. Everton have so far done well in establishing themselves as regular contenders for Europe and gradually strengthening their squad at minimal expense, but if they fail to qualify again this year, and they can’t hang to players like Fellaini and Pienaar, who is stalling on signing a new contract, ¬†for another year they could find themselves back where they started.