There was something grimly predictable about Saturday’s Merseyside Derby, and it was not just the usual rash of horror tackles from both sides. Instead, it was Everton’s capitulation in the face of a vastly winnable game that left Evertonians everywhere cursing their team’s failings.
After Sotirios Kyrgiakos saw the 18th red card in the game’s Premier League history, the onus was on Everton to press home their advantage, but bar a Tim Cahill header late in the first half David Moyes’ side never looked like scoring despite the extra man. And when Tim Howard became more concerned by the presence of Dirk Kuyt in the six yard box than clearing Steven Gerrard’s corner, Everton’s timidity got what it deserved. It was an unfortunate lapse from the American goalkeeper, arguably Everton’s most consistent player this year, but was symptomatic of the Toffees’ preoccupation with ‘getting stuck in’ and forgetting the basics of how to win a football match.
It is an odd phenomenon, the red mist that descends on players when confronted with their local rivals. Any hint of grace and subtlety is catapulted out the window and replaced with sneering force, almost as if the bile that too often spills from the terraces is overriding the players’ nature, and before you know it Stephen Pienaar is inches from breaking Javier Mascherano’s leg. The little South African is a wonderful footballer, truly a joy to watch when he is at his best, but his cowardly challenge on the Argentine was sickening and unworthy of such a talented player. Pienaar may have eventually received the red card he richly deserved, but it is scant punishment to miss one game when by rights he should miss the next three and then some.
But even before being dismissed, Pienaar had, along with the rest of his teammates, been largely anonymous following Kyrgiakos’ departure. Perhaps Marouane Fellaini would have made a difference, although the manner in which the Belgian was hurtling around the field would surely have produced a red card sooner rather than later – Fellaini was lucky to escape punishment for the stamp on Kyrgiakos as the Greek defender lunged, two-footed towards his shin. Sadly, Saturday was not the first time this season Everton have wilted in front of more vaunted opposition, as the trip to Old Trafford produced an Everton performance so limp it was undeserving of the name. For the clash with Chelsea tomorrow, the Blues need to re-find the balance between fight and finesse they took to Chelsea’s city rivals Arsenal at the beginning of January.
That game saw Everton shock the Gunners with high-tempo pressing all over the field and lightning counter-attacks, usually led by the now-suspended Pienaar. Everton showed a great deal of heart and no little ability to twice take the lead at the Emirates and by the end it was Arsenal left delighted with a draw and Everton kicking themselves over dropping two points. A similarly energetic performance is needed against Carlo Ancelotti’s men, but it must come without Pienaar for sure and almost certainly Fellaini. Replacing two of his best recent performers will be a tough task for Moyes, but at least the squad now has the depth that was lacking earlier in the season.
John Heitinga, a rock in central defence since before Christmas, could be shifted into midfield to replace Fellaini, although that would leave Philippe Senderos against his tormentor-in-chief during his Arsenal days, Didier Drogba. The Ivory Coast captain’s barnstorming performance on Sunday was the stuff of nightmares for the Swiss international, but with Jack Rodwell still a doubt the remaining options would be either deploying Phil Neville in the engine room and handing young right-back Seamus Coleman the task of containing the preeminent left-back in the world today, Ashley Cole, or pitching Mikel Arteta into the heart of the team before he is properly ready. Pienaar will likely be replaced by Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, and hopefully the recent spell on the bench for the Russian has provided the breathing space required after a string of quiet performances.
February promised to be Everton’s most challenging month of the season even before the shambles at Anfield. After Chelsea tomorrow comes the return of the Europa League and a two-legged tie with Sporting Lisbon with a home date against Manchester United sandwiched in between before the month ends with a trip to White Hart Lane. T.S Eliot said April was the cruellest month – David Moyes may soon disagree.