THE SKY was blue; increasingly, during a climax of captivating desperation so was the air in the vicinity of the Everton bench. But, ultimately, the latest pride and pre-eminence on Merseyside was wrapped with red ribbons, applied and knotted principally by Robbie Fowler - a genuine scouser at his cheeky and irreverent best and worst.
Liverpool's nine-match win-less sequence in this most parochial passion play is ended, but Fowler's disciplinary problems may not be. His two goals gratified a raucous Kop; but his reaction to the first - at best - betrayed the apparent insensitivity his critics find so often.
Fowler's contentious moment occurred after 15 furious minutes. Paul Ince had gone to ground in a challenge with Marco Materazzi. The referee David Elleray, who had already shown two yellow cards in an impossibly frenetic opening, awarded a penalty. Fowler scored, celebrated uncompromisingly in front of the Everton supporters, then got down on his hands and knees and seemingly applied his nose to the white line marking the penalty area.
To all the world it seemed that Fowler was responding to the unfounded rumours of drug-taking which have found receptive ears among Everton fans - and provided them with much ammunition for taunting the striker - by mimicking the action of snorting.
Afterwards, however, the official line was that - far from pretending to be a "smack-head" - Fowler was, at worst, being a "bonehead". His manager, Gerard Houllier, explained that "It was just a joke", dating back to the Metz career of the Cameroon international Rigobert Song. Apparently, during his time in France, Song and his colleagues were in the habit of pretending to eat grass to celebrate a goal. Song had demonstrated the idea in training; Fowler had found it amusing and given the "grass habit" a try.
Nor, according to Houllier, was anyone offended by it. He had spoken to Elleray who saw nothing untoward and would be making no report.
The police, however, will be. A spokesman for Merseyside police said officers were investigating. He said: "Following a complaint from a member of the public the matter will be investigated and match officials will be spoken to by officers." This is not good news for Fowler, who already has a date with the FA's disciplinarians regarding the Graeme Le Saux affair this Friday, his 24th birthday.
Press photographs might yet become exhibits in any wider inquiry into the striker's taunting antics. But these should not detract from what was an absolutely belting game of football. Colourful and cacophonous, it gave the lie to any notion that during a period of underachievement on Merseyside, this very special occasion is diminished.
In fact, quite the opposite. The less relevance it has on a wider national stage, the more intimately the rivalry is felt in this city. Anyway, it was relevant for Everton, very relevant. They need points now if this twice-yearly jamboree is to be enjoyed into a 38th successive season.
They began with the thrust and vigour of a team hell-bent on gleaning those points at a venue where - in the minds of their fans - they practically count double. Only 40 frantic, wild-tackling seconds had passed when the ball fell teasingly to Olivier Dacourt on the edge of the penalty area. He swung with his left foot and, having made the purest connection, benefited from the kindest deflection to leave David James helpless.
The blue touchpaper was lit; but the Reds were more visibly ignited by it. Ince cried in vain for one penalty and - before he was awarded another - Song headed wide. Then, Fowler took centre stage. His penalty was perfection and his instinct unerring when, five minutes later, Steve McManaman flicked on Patrik Berger's corner inside the box, and Fowler's head established the lead.
McManaman had won that corner, sharpening the fingertips of the Everton goalkeeper Thomas Myrhe with a crafty, dipping volley. His 19th meeting with Everton is destined, of course, to be the last and, if he brings the same energy and invention to Real's meetings with Atletico, McManaman will prosper in Madrid.
After a necessarily less eventful opening to the second half, Liverpool seemed to have settled the contest when Berger reacted sharply to Jamie Redknapp's half-cleared corner and doubled the lead with a low volley. However, Everton were still not done. A swivelling half-volley from Francis Jeffers immediately silenced the taunts of "going down".
In the ensuing panic, Liverpool were hideously close to being breached again, but Paul Gerrard scraped the ball away from his line with Campbell closing in and blocked Cadamarteri's shot with James stranded out of his box.
Furthermore, Everton had two desperate penalty claims waved away - "It's just like Celtic Park; you get nothing there either," smiled their former Rangers manager Walter Smith.
So, perhaps Everton will go down now. If they do, Liverpool will be the first to bemoan the absence of this very special fixture.
LIFE AND STRIFE OF ROBBIE FOWLER
1975: Born Toxteth, Liverpool, 9 April.
1986: Plays for Liverpool as an 11-year-old schoolboy.
1993: Plays for England in the Uefa Youth Cup. Makes League debut. Scores all five goals in 5-0 victory over Fulham in Coca-Cola Cup.
1995: Voted PFA Young Player of the Year. Scores 31 goals for Liverpool. Suffers nose injury in bust-up with Neil Ruddock on return flight from Russia.
1996: Makes full England debut as a substitute. Voted PFA Young Player of the Year for a second successive season. Scores 35 goals in 53 appearances.
1997: Praised for sportsmanlike gesture when he tries to persuade referee Gerald Ashby not to award penalty when felled by Arsenal's David Seaman.
Following day fined pounds 900 for wearing T-shirt supporting striking Liverpool dockers. Sent off with David Unsworth after clash during Merseyside derby.
1998: Suffers serious knee injury in challenge with Everton keeper Thomas Myhre and misses rest of the season and World Cup.
1999: Involved in running feud with Graeme Le Saux in defeat at Chelsea. Le Saux strikes Fowler for obscene gestures. FA charge both with misconduct.
Le Saux sends written apology to Fowler, and the two make peace.