Everton and Liverpool contested the 219th Merseyside derby on Sunday, sharing the spoils in a pulsating encounter at Goodison Park. Two early goals from the visitors gave the Toffees a mountain to climb to even get a point out of the match, but a stirring fightback earned them a 35th minute equaliser before the match petered out in the second half only for a moment of controversy to deny the visitors an injury-time winner.
Much as you might expect, it was a frenetic -- and therefore exciting -- start to the match. Everton managed to win a corner inside twenty seconds using the rather straightforward tactic of booting long to Marouane Fellaini. It was clear from the off that they were targetting Brad Jones on set pieces, and the 30-year-old was struggling to clear under major pressure from Nikica Jelavic and Fellaini.
But Liverpool were surging forward whenever they could, with Luis Suarez in particular looking dangerous whenever he was isolated against Phil Jagielka or Sylvain Distain. The Toffees' cause was certainly not being helped by some absolutely atrocious passing in midfield, which allowed their guests to hit them on the break, and it was one such error that led to the game's opening goal.
Jose Enrique was given time and space to tear down the left, and Everton's defence was left completely without support when the cross came in. Leighton Baines did well to prevent Raheem Sterling latching onto the low delivery, but the ball ran straight to Suarez lurking in space past the back post. That's an unfortunate place for the ball to run, as far as the hosts were concerned, and the Uruguayan made them pay with a driven effort back into the crowd which ended up deflecting off Baines' knee and past Tim Howard for an own goal.
A 1-0 lead for the visitors was probably undeserved on the balance of play, but Everton didn't have long to reflect on the injustice of it all before going even further behind. Leon Osman picked up a booking for nipping twice at Sterling's heels, and from the long free kick Jelavic completely failed to get goalside of Suarez. The centre forward's mistake allowed his counterpart to flick beyond Howard, this time without the benefit of any deflection.
That really could have been game over -- a 2-0 deficit within 20 minutes of play is not generally conducive to a good result for the home side, but Everton were handed a lifeline by Jones shortly thereafter. A long ball forward eventually found its way to Fellaini, who won a corner with a shot that deflected off Martin Skrtel, and from said corner Jones' weak punch fell to Osman at the top of the box.
Bizarrely, the midfielder was allowed the time and space to trap the ball on his chest and lash back towards goal, with the shot picking up a slight deflection off Joe Allen as it made its way through the forward of legs and crept in at the far post. Suddenly, two minutes after Suarez's second, the match was back on.
Much of that was to do with the industrious play of Kevin Mirallas on the left. Deployed against young right back Andre Wisdom, the Belgian had the better of his man throughout the first half, and was the source of most of Everton's dangerous play. And it was his work on the left that led to the equaliser, with a driven cross being picked up by Fellaini, who advanced to the touchline before cutting the ball back for Steven Naismith to fire home from close range*.
*The defending here was shambolic. Neither Enrique nor Daniel Agger knew which of Jelavic and Naismith they were meant to be picking up, and therefore opted to ignore both.
So, 35 minutes into the match, we were back to square one, only this time the momentum was firmly in the hosts' favour. Wave after wave of Everton attacks crashed towards Jones' goal as the first half ended, and it was abundantly clear to all concerned that if that kept up Liverpool were going to concede again. And so Brendan Rodgers made a major change at halftime, shifting to a back three and adding Jonjo Shelvey to the midfield.
Meanwhile, the Toffees suffered a major blow when Mirallas, who'd picked up a series of knocks in the first half, was forced off at the break. Shorn of their top offensive threat, the hosts began the second half poorly and very nearly went behind again when they were caught out by Sterling's pace. The 17-year-old had been pushed up front by Rodgers' halftime changes, and had a glorious chance to regain the lead when he raced clear down the left.
But rather than finishing past an exposed Howard (or squaring to Suarez, which was probably a better bet), Sterling played a laughable chip attempt which scudded hopelessly wide. Then, at the other end of the pitch, Everton forged a chance of their own. Jelavic took up Mirallas' Wisdom-tormentig mantle, skipping past the young right back to set up Baines for a cross.
Said cross resulted in an acrobatic overhead kick attempt from Naismith, who having scored his first ever league goal for Everton was eager to get back on the scoresheet, and it also brought out an amusingly late sliding tackle from Skrtel on Baines. Happily the left back didn't make too much of the penalty shout.
The match had lost some of its intensity in the second half, but there were still opportunities for both sides. Liverpool's switch to using wing backs was leaving space in behind, and Seamus Coleman made the most of it after combining well with Fellaini on the Everton left. His low cross was just about scrambled away by Skrtel under heavy pressure from Jelavic.
That chance led to a spell of pressure from the hosts, who were opting for the tried and true technique of 'fling crosses into the box'. And really, it should have paid off -- Jelavic's head was found often enough that one might have expected the Croatian to test Jones' goal rather than the structural integrity of the advertising boards.
Suarez took it upon himself to alleviate said pressure, although his method (spiking Distin in the Achilles tendon) left something to be desired. Daniel Agger, meanwhile, provided a moment of jollity with a hilarious piece of slow motion fake agony after Jelavic had completely failed to clip him with an overhead kick attempt.
But Liverpool were doing actual football things too. Jordan Henderson got the better of Magaye Gueye on the right, and his cross saw Steven Gerrard suddenly find himself with a free shot in the centre of the box. Only a despairing block from Jagielka prevented a goal, and Suarez nearly managed to get his second-and-a-half after he capped a mazy run with a shot right at Baines.
The match nearly ended in high drama when Suarez stabbed home a Sebastian Coates header from very close range only to see the linesman's flag up for no apparent reason. Coates was not offside from the Joe Allen free kick; Suarez was not offside from the knockdown, and nobody appears to have been fouled. It was an appalling -- although entirely fitting -- way to end the match.
Controversy aside, however, neither team showed enough in the second half to really deserve the three points. For Everton, it was an impressive fightback after going down 2-0 very early, while Liverpool will be relieved that their overall performance kicked up significantly after it looked like they could have been overrun. For the neutral, it was a pretty engaging spectacle, although the sheer energy of the first half turned out to be impossible to maintain.