Monday, March 31, 2008

LiverpooL 1 - 0 Everton

Fernando Torres' early strike gave Liverpool a precious five-point lead over their Merseyside rivals in the race for Champions League qualification.

Torres cost Liverpool around £20million last summer, and this goal - of all the 28 he has grabbed so far - could be the one that earns the riches that come from participating in Europe's premier competition each season.

Liverpool dominated the first half, and should have been in total command. Steven Gerrard hit a post and a hatful of chances were wasted.

But Everton, to their immense credit, tested Liverpool to the absolute limits in the second-half, and the Kop stood in anguish as they watched their heroes defend the goal in front of them.

But Liverpool hung on to complete only their 12th league double over the Goodison Park side in what was virtually a final eliminator for fourth spot.

Liverpool were missing the suspended Javier Mascherano, while Everton were without the injured Tim Cahill and Andrew Johnson - arguably damaging the Toffees' system more than the Argentina midfielder's absence for the Reds.

And after a spirited opening spell, in which Mikel Arteta tested Jose Reina with a spin and shot from 25-yards, Liverpool set about establishing a superiority on this 207th Mersey derby.

With so much at stake, financially as well as local pride, the game was tense and needed a firm control from referee Howard Webb, mindful of the 36 yellow and seven red cards in the seven derbies since Benitez took charge at Anfield.

In a fixture that has more dismissals than any other Premier League fixture Webb did a pretty decent job of keeping the passions in check.

He booked both Lee Carsley and Phil Neville - on his 100th league appearance for Everton - inside the first 18 minutes for fouls on Torres and Lucas, by which time Liverpool were deservedly in front.

And it had to be that man Torres.

The Spaniard may not have fared too well with goals for Atletico in the Madrid derby, just one, but he scored inside seven minutes of his Merseyside derby debut.

It was Liverpool's 100th in all competitions this season and he equalled the club record of scoring in six successive home league games, his 28th of a stunning first campaign in the Premier League.

It came when Xabi Alonso caught Ayegbeni Yakubu in possession 20 yards out, a situation the Nigerian should have had under control.

But he dithered and the ball was poked back into the box for Dirk Kuyt to flick forward. And Torres was on it in a flash, drilling the ball inside Tim Howard's far post with the normally solid Everton rearguard all over the place.

And for the next half-hour Liverpool pinned Everton back, searching for further success.

Kuyt had shots blocked by Tony Hibbert and Howard in quick succession, Ryan Babel missed a gift close-in from a John Arne Riise cross before a brave saving header from Carsley stopped Lucas reaching a Steven Gerrard free-kick.

Gerrard, himself, on his 20th derby appearance, then almost uprooted Howard's right-hand post with a fierce, dipping drive from 25-yards.

But the feeling remained that Everton were still in it despite Reina barely being tested.

Everton, with Arteta in a more central midfield role, and Steven Pienaar a wandering, sporadic influence, had unquenchable belief.

That was reinforced by the way they were over-powering Lucas in midfield, possession constantly being conceded.

And they started the second period with growing intent. Pienaar was booked for a foul on Babel as the Blues' tempo increased.

Neville's move to a more advanced role on the left of midfield forced Kuyt to defend and stopped Jamie Carragher getting forward. And Everton started to win free-kicks, their dangerous trademark.

Leon Osman sent a header just wide from one of Arteta's accurate deliveries, with Liverpool now having to defend. Manuel Fernandes came on for Pienaar on the hour, and Everton continued to press.

Phil Jagielka was booked for a late challenge on Gerrard before Neville was withdrawn - presumably injured because he headed straight down the tunnel after grabbing a track-suit top angrily, before exchanging a handshake with Moyes.

Liverpool gambled on sitting back and trying to catch Everton on the break the more they came forward, increasingly desperate to salvage something.

Babel was withdrawn to allow Yossi Benayoun into the argument, while Everton sent Jagielka up front late on. Everton were a constant and growing menace which needed all of Sami Hyypia's experience and Martin Skrtel's brawn to contain.

The unease in Liverpool ranks increased with Torres booked for time wasting, before being withdrawn, Jermaine Pennant coming on with two minutes left.

Kuyt curled a 20-yarder just wide and Howard saved superbly from Gerrard, but it was all Everton as the seconds ticked away.

Liverpool sent on Peter Crouch for Gerrard in injury-time as they successfully used up the last moments.

Fernando Torres Overwhelmed By First Derby Experience

Liverpool match-winner Fernando Torres left Anfield with a feeling of amazement after his first Merseyside derby ended in victory.

The Spain striker scored the only goal in the seventh minute and after the game he expressed his delight at the performance, which put five points between the Reds and their fifth-placed local rivals Everton.

“The derby was amazing. It is always different for the fans. It is an important week and you feel this is a special game,” he said.

“The victory was most important and Everton are further behind than before.”

Torres, who has now scored 21 goals in the Barclays Premier League, said today made up for last week’s disappointing 3-0 defeat at Manchester United.

“When you have a bad result you need a big game with a good result and now we have confidence again,” he added.

Gerrard Bemoans Liverpool’s Inability To Kill Off The Game By Scoring More Goals

Confident Steven Gerrard believes Liverpool should have won by an even greater margin after claiming victory over Everton.

A seventh-minute goal from Fernando Torres ultimately settled the 207th Merseyside derby at Anfield yesterday.

It ensured Rafael Benitez’s side opened up a five-point lead on their neighbours in the race for fourth place and the final Champions League qualification berth.

Liverpool dominated the first half before withstanding a belated Everton recovery after half-time as the hosts spurned a variety of good chances to add to their advantage.

And Gerrard, who was denied a spectacular goal of his own by the width of the post, reckons the visitors at times struggled to cope with their city rivals.

“It was a good win but we’re slightly disappointed we didn’t make it more comfortable in the first half, because we had plenty of chances to kill the game off,” said the Liverpool skipper.

“But I never once thought we’d lose the game or give a goal away.

“You’re always after a quick start in the derby and a quick goal and we got that, and in the first half we completely dominated the game. We maybe deserved a bigger margin of victory.

“We dominated for large parts of the game and we couldn’t quite convert another goal in the first half, and I was disappointed when my effort came back off the post.”

With only six league games remaining, Liverpool are now firm favourites to hold off their neighbours and retain their top-four place for Champions League qualification.

However, Gerrard insists there will be no complacency with the Anfield outfit preparing for a triple-header against Arsenal in the Champions League and Premier League over the next nine days.

“It was a big win and we knew how important this game would be for us,” said Gerrard.

“Hopefully now we can continue to pick up wins until the end of the season and grab that fourth spot.

“Credit to Everton they came back strongly in the second half – we couldn’t quite get that second goal which made it harder.

“But we are winning games and you’re happy as long as you are winning. These games are also about bragging rights and I’m sure the supporters will be pleased.

“We still have difficult games to go so it was important to get the result.”

Gerrard added: “For the time being the pressure is off us having to win the Champions League to qualify for the competition, because we know we have a gap now.

“But although we have to massive Champions League games coming up against Arsenal, we have to make sure we put a big performance in for the Premier League game in between and maintain that five-point gap or even increase it.”

Torres’s goal was his 28th of the season – 21 of them coming in the Premier League – and an admiring skipper Gerrard said: “It’s no shock to me the way Fernando finished for his goal.

“Give the guy the chances and he will put them away.”

Everton were shorn of a number of key personnel in attack and Gerrard concedes that perhaps blunted the threat going forward of David Moyes’s side.

“I think looking at Everton’s teamsheet and the way they lined up, they were playing for a draw,” he said.

“Maybe if Andrew Johnson had been fit, they may have been a bit more positive.

“But you have to give us credit for our performance, Everton couldn’t live with us in the first 45 minutes.”

Torres’s Star Show Hailed By Benitez

Rafael Benitez hailed ace striker Fernando Torres after his recordequalling goal earned Liverpool victory in the Merseyside derby and took them to the brink of Champions League qualification.

Torres struck in a sixth successive home game to equal a club record as the Reds opened up a five-point gap over fifth-placed Everton with six games to play. The Spaniard stole the points by coolly slotting past Toffees keeper Tim Howard after only seven minutes in a strangely subdued derby affair.

It was his 28th goal of what has been a memorable debut season in England and had delighted boss Benitez singing his praises. “We must admit that we are surprised by how well Fernando has settled here,” Benitez said. “We knew he was a great player, one of the best strikers in Europe, but for him to score 28 goals in his first season for the club is very impressive.”

Liverpool got off to the best possible start when Steven Gerrard’s corner was only half-cleared, Xavi Alonso stole the ball off Yakubu and Dirk Kuyt played in Torres to score.

Gerrard then came within a whisker of doubling the advantage five minutes before the break with a first-time volley which hit the post. Despite the result Benitez refused to accept the race for fourth was over. “We are at Arsenal next Saturday and that will be tough, while Everton are at home to Derby,” he added. “Things can change around very quickly.”

Rafa Benitez Blasts Everton Fans Over Steven Gerrard Abuse

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez slammed Everton's fans for taunting skipper Steven Gerrard - and revealed he was happy that his star man shut them up.

Gerrard came in for a torrent of personal abuse about his private life from the away end and Benitez rapped:

"I am sure some players will be really pleased about that win and I am really pleased for them. I don't like to hear some of those things and it is a lack of respect."

The Kop chief singled out Gerrard for praise as they basked in the glory of a derby win that takes the Anfield side five points clear of their rivals and red-hot favourites for fourth place.

Gerrard was the target for the hate mob but he preferred to focus on the vital victory and said:

"It's a big win for us and hopefully we can continue like that to the end of the season and grab fourth spot."

Fernando Torres was the match-winner with his 21st Premier League goal of the season and Benitez added: "We are surprised.

"We knew he was a fantastic player but to score that many in his first season isn't easy, especially for a foreign player.

"He is one of the best in Europe."

Even Everton boss David Moyes was impressed. He said: "It was like playing against two men at times in the first half because of the way he occupied our centre-halves."

DIC, Hicks And Gillett Ready For Crisis Talks

Liverpool co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett are due to meet with a representative from Dubai International Capital, in the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday night.

It is understood that it will be the first time all three parties have shared the same room, meaning that the drama on the pitch of the Champions League quarter-final between Arsenal and Liverpool could easily be surpassed by tensions off it.

DIC remain optimistic that they can still launch a successful takeover and yesterday there were signs that the Liverpool power struggle was moving into its final phase. It has emerged that the pressure on Hicks may heighten in the coming weeks due to the possible need for him to refinance other assets. Market sources predict that the pressure of the global credit crunch could well force Hicks's hand.

Hicks has so far refused to do business unless he can retain a controlling stake but Gillett has made it clear that he will not sell to his partner.

Gillett does, however, regard DIC as "very responsible" possible owners and last week admitted to a Canadian radio station that his relationship with Hicks had been "unworkable for some time''.

Liverpool chief executive Rick Parry has urged some sort of swift resolution. "My plea is that something happens this week,'' he said.

"There is a need for a degree of urgency but it is urgent to get it right, not urgent to come up with the wrong solution.

"I think George was pretty clear in stating the relationship between the two of them had broken down and, as a result of that, an alternative solution needs to be found.

"There is no question that to succeed you need unity at the top. I think it brings it to a head. All things are possible at the moment. Someone has to sell, that is clear if they are not able to co-exist.''

The uncertainty over the club's ownership has placed a question mark over Rafa Benitez's future as manager, although Parry has said that he believes the Spaniard can transform his great success on the European stage to the Premier League.

"We are very conscious that, from every Liverpool fan's point of view, the League is the big, big goal and that is the one we would really like to win,'' he said.