CHAMPIONSHIPS MAY no longer rest on the Merseyside derby, but Liverpool's prolonged mid-table mundanity, and Everton's constant relegation battles, have not dimmed their sound and fury.
Three players were dismissed at Anfield last night, two from Liverpool, as the 161st derby showed that local pride becomes even more important when national prizes are out of reach.
Bubbling with passion from the fifth minute, when Kevin Campbell put Everton ahead, it boiled over in the 77th when Francis Jeffers and Sander Westerveld were sent off for fighting. The drama continued as Paul Gerrard brilliantly denied Liverpool an equaliser before his namesake Stephen was dismissed for a wild tackle on Campbell in injury time. It could have been worse, for Michael Owen had earlier been lucky to avoid expulsion for a two-footed tackle.
The victorious manager, Walter Smith, played down his jubilation at his first win over Liverpool, and Everton's heady position of sixth, but accepted Jeffers had been "wayward".
His Liverpool counterpart, Gerard Houllier, admitted some of his players "lost the plot", adding: "We hurried our actions, we played too quickly, we were not patient, we need to keep self-control". As a long-time student of Merseyside football, he should know better.
These games are always played at extreme pace whatever the cast. This one contained seven derby debutants, five from overseas, and just four Liverpudlians: Robbie Fowler and Jamie Carragher for the Reds, Michael Ball and Jeffers for the Blues. It was enough, with Ball underlining the seriousness of the occasion by requesting a special pair of boots from his sponsors, one with the red trim removed.
Jeffers showed his commitment with a heavy early challenge on Jamie Redknapp, but the teenager soon displayed a more subtle and effective touch as his delicate flick, from Nick Barmby's pass, put Campbell through for Everton's opener. With three of Liverpool's back four stepping up, but Carragher dropping back, the striker found himself onside and in space 12 yards out. As he scored his 12th goal in 19 Everton appearances, angry shouts of "sort it out" tumbled down from The Kop.
The goal intensified an already frenetic game but, with so many good technical players involved, this did not preclude some decent football being played and chances created. At one end a Jeffers header was well saved by Westerveld, while at the other Redknapp, from 20 yards, was denied by a stretching Gerrard.
The tension increased with the tempo, with the referee, Mike Riley, dismissing Jeffers' penalty appeal after a Steve Staunton challenge, then booking Staunton, Redknapp, Owen and Ball. Owen was lucky; his reckless lunge at David Weir had the Everton bench apoplectic with rage and could have merited a red.
Any gratitude towards the Leeds official soon disappeared as he was denied a penalty. Owen had pounced after Gerrard failed to hold a fierce shot from Fowler and the otherwise excellent Richard Gough dallied with his clearance. Having stolen the ball, Owen was surrounded by blue shirts and, after evading three challenges, was felled by the fourth, from Ball.
By the second period Liverpool had gradually gained a measure of possession but Everton remained dangerous and should have gone two up five minutes into the half when Don Hutchison released Jeffers. Instead, the 18-year- old rolled the ball just past the far post. Everyone was aware that the next goal could be crucial.
Fowler might have claimed it but drilled his shot at Gerrard. Short of fitness, he then made way as Liverpool made changes. Everton stuck with their first XI. Would their minds and bodies hold out? In Jeffers' case, the answer was no. Chasing a half-chance with 13 minutes left he was tackled cleanly, but continued his movement to clatter into Westerveld. The goalkeeper, who had earlier accused Jeffers of being a "cheat", responded roughly and Jeffers reacted with a series of punches. Westerveld, heavier, taller and with a stronger reach, seemed shocked at his audacity but returned enough fire to justify a red card as well.
With Liverpool having used three substitutes, Staunton had to go in goal. He made one superb save, from Abel Xavier, but the heroics came from Gerrard who made stunning saves from Meijer's deflected shot and Redknapp's free- kick in the closing five minutes.
Gerrard was not the only Blue hero. Gough and Weir were outstanding in defence and Hutchison and John Collins effervescent in midfield. They may not stay sixth but last year's relegation struggle ought not be repeated.
"It was a bad game for us," concluded Houllier after Liverpool's fourth defeat in eight matches. "It is the fourth time we have conceded at the beginning of a game, we knew Everton would be compact in defence and that made it harder."
Liverpool (4-4-2): Westerveld; Heggem, Hyypia, Carragher, Staunton; Smicer (Camara, 71), Hamann (S Gerrard, 64), Redknapp, Berger; Owen, Fowler (Meijer, 64). Substitutes not used: Henchoz, Nielsen.
Everton (4-4-2): P Gerrard; Dunne, Weir, Gough, Ball; Xavier, Hutchison, Collins, Barmby; Jeffers, Campbell. Substitutes not used: Cleland, Gemmill, Ward, Johnson, Simonsen.
Referee: M Riley (Leeds).
Premiership table, page 31