x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Liverpool paint town Red

Paradoxically, they have won the two matches their supporters prize most - against Manchester United and Everton - while losing eight others.

LIVERPOOL // A matter of months ago, Uefa's official rankings designated Liverpool the top team in Europe. As Rafa Benitez's men head for the Europa League, few such claims are made on their behalf now. But they can at least console themselves that they retain one vital distinction, however: they are the dominant side on Merseyside. Javier Mascherano's deflected strike and Dirk Kuyt's late goal provided Liverpool with a third successive Premier League triumph at Goodison Park. It was also a second win in a week, the sort of statistic that is not normally noteworthy but, after a traumatic two months, represents respite. On the football pitch and on the balance sheet, however, they remain in the red. Everton, dangerously close to the bottom three, have the blues.

So the paradox of Liverpool's season continues. They have won the two matches their supporters prize most - against Manchester United and Everton - while losing eight others. Under other circumstances, this result would be described as the sort of hard-fought victory champions produce. Now it cannot be. Everton rendered it difficult. Jo had two goals disallowed, while Jose Reina made an outstanding double save before Kuyt clinched the points. It was far from vintage Liverpool, but they had a resilience that has been lacking at times and a unity to suggest that, despite their setbacks this season, Benitez retains the support of the players.

Barring the sidelined Fernando Torres, he had his first-choice side available. The pivotal goal was supplied by a man who was created with afternoons such as this in mind. Derbies can be games for midfield scrappers and Mascherano was in his element, snapping into tackles and relishing his role as the agent provocateur for the Goodison Park crowd. Mascherano's commitment to the cause has been questioned, especially amid reports that he is bound for Barcelona, but not on this occasion.

Optimistic and often ineffectual long-range shooting has become a feature of his game. Persistence finally brought an end product when Mascherano let fly from 25 yards. Joseph Yobo, who was marking David Ngog, stuck out a leg and only succeeded in diverting the ball past Tim Howard. It may yet be classified as an own goal, but Mascherano's emphatic celebrations, sprinting to the far corner of the ground to the visiting supporters, showed he believes it to be just his second strike for Liverpool.

Although Howard produced a superb save to tip Emiliano Insua's header away, Everton were in the ascendant for the majority of the match. The height of Marouane Fellaini and Jo made each an awkward customer for a Liverpool defence who have been troubled in the air. Everton's first chance, spurned by Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, followed flick-ons by the Belgian and the Brazilian. The Russian tested Jose Reina with an overhead kick, but the greater threat came from the opposite flank.

Steven Pienaar made a series of forays forward, twice trying his luck from distance. When he supplied a pass, Everton thought they had equalised. The South African found Bilyaletdinov who, in turn, picked out Jo. The on-loan Manchester City striker finished adeptly and starting celebrating before he noticed that he had been adjudged offside. Indeed, he had an acute case of déjà vu when he was denied in the same fashion again.

This time the decision was clearer: Jo was standing on Reina's line when Joseph Yobo met Leighton Baines's corner with a downward header that the Brazilian turned over the line. If the Everton crowd felt their side was wronged, replays vindicated referee Alan Wiley on both occasions. Nevertheless, that served to galvanise the home support. Despite their predicament, their support for Moyes goes unquestioned.

Reina, who had initially spilled a fierce effort from Pienaar, was grateful to see that it had not dropped over the line. The Spaniard, who has been among the most eloquent in Benitez's defence in recent times, did more to aid his manager's cause after 70 minutes with two displays of agility. First Tim Cahill, who had headed on John Heitinga's free kick, and then Fellaini were denied. It proved a turning point. A minute after his introduction, Albert Riera shot, Howard parried the ball and Kuyt was on hand to tap in the rebound. Game over although, given the topsy-turvy nature of their season, perhaps not an end to Liverpool's problems.

@Email:rjolly@thenational.ae