March 2006, and Steven Gerrard is sent off just eighteen minutes into the Merseyside derby at Anfield. Over in the Anfield Road end, Everton supporters are celebrating the dismissal as though they’ve scored a goal, confident that the fact that their great rivals are down to ten men means that victory is surely assured. An own goal from Phil Neville, an exquisite Luis Garcia lob and a stunning Harry Kewell strike later, and Liverpool had won 3-1. Four years later, those same Everton supporters still hadn’t learned their lesson.
The cheers weren’t as loud this time. A red card for Sotirios Krygiakos, for all his recent good form, doesn’t signify as much as the dismissal of the Liverpool captain Gerrard, but the Blue celebrations that greeted referee Martin Atkinson’s removal of the big centre back 34 minutes in – to what would prove a typical derby – could be heard all around Anfield. The visiting supporters believed that the dismissal of Kyrgiakos signified the beginning of a Greek tragedy for Liverpool. As it was, it merely proved to be the dramatic plot twist that set the stage for an against-all-odds victory.
To most neutrals it wouldn’t have been much to look at – these derbies rarely are – but if you like your football committed, passionate and win-at-all-costs – and people on Merseyside do – then you’d have been hooked. Bodies were put on the line, vast amounts of effort were put in and tough tackles were made, sometimes too tough. Quite how Steven Pienaar had to wait until the 95th minute to be shown a red card was one of the more bemusing aspects of a heated afternoon. The horrific challenge on Javier Mascherano apart, the little South African was persistently fouling all day, with Atkinson eventually giving him his marching orders for pushing his luck more than anything. Not like that decision affected the game at all, unlike Kyrgiakos’ card – possibly the first example of both players emerging from a challenge and both perhaps deserving of being dismissed. The Greek was unfortunate, as not only did he somewhat harshly receive his marching orders, but he also needed several stitches in the ankle injury caused by Marouane Fellaini’s studs up lunge. With Pienaar and Fellaini’s challenges, Liverpool could easily have been playing 11 against nine after little over half an hour. As it turned out it was 10 against 11, and as always in that situation, fight, passion and commitment are required, doubly so in a derby match. That’s exactly what Liverpool showed, and two men typified it more than most.
Eyebrows were raised when Rafael Benitez reacted to the sending off of Kyrgiakos by moving Mascherano to right back to accommodate Jamie Carragher’s relocation to the centre. Both Philipp Degen and Martin Skrtel were on the bench, but the Argentina captain’s relocation to the right side of the Reds’ defence was to prove a masterstroke, and he performed as though it was his natural position. Ahead of him lay Dirk Kuyt, who must have stamina levels beyond those of a normal human being. Limping heavily in the first half, and sporting a cut to the cheek administered by Fellaini’s boot, Kuyt was simply superb. In recent weeks it is he who has done more than anyone else in a bid to boost flagging fortunes – both the teams’ and his own – and his workrate and energy levels, along with Mascherano’s, ensured that the ten men looked like eleven, even twelve. On the odd occasions that Pienaar wasn’t fouling people he was making slow progress down Everton’s left due to the sterling work done by the Argentinean and the Dutchman, who played with such a tenacity and endeavour that you’d have sworn they were from Bootle or Toxteth. At least Liverpool are top of a table this season. Kyrgiakos’ red card was the Reds’ fifth this campaign, the most in the division, but they shrugged it off manfully. Kuyt’s goal was startling in its simplicity, made possible by the most pinpoint of deliveries from Gerrard’s corner, but what it signified was much more stunning.
To beat any team when you are playing most of the game with a man less than them is impressive enough, but to beat one of the division’s better sides – who just so happen to play over the park from you – breeds a new belief. From seemingly cowering under the pressure of performing for the club earlier this season, Liverpool’s players should feel ten-feet tall today, and their supporters’ celebrations at the full-time whistle told their own stories. A trip to the Emirates Stadium tomorrow night comes with its own concerns and potential for problems, but the Reds should go there full of confidence and desire. They’ve earned that right, and they earned it with ten men.