Benitez defiant as Reds fail to regain summit

Liverpool 1 Everton 1
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With three minutes left to play it was just another one of those classic Steven Gerrard nights at Anfield, one more spellbinding occasion when the course of Liverpool's history is shaped by their captain's heroics. Then in the space of a second it became just another one of those nights when you wonder if Rafael Benitez's team are ever going to last the distance in a Premier League title race.

Tim Cahill's 87th-minute equaliser has not derailed Liverpool's attempt on a first league title since 1990 but it has meant that all the familiar old questions about their durability can be raised again. A pivotal derby victory which carried a significance far beyond the matter of three points was thrown away with the carelessness of a team who are not convinced that they can win this title for the first time in 18 years – never mind what doubts the rest of us have.

Liverpool are second only on goal difference to Manchester United, although they now have a game in hand, and, while this may have felt like a defeat, it is very far from a disaster for Liverpool. A disaster would be, as Benitez readily points out, if they had reached the mid-point in January out of touch with the title race and eliminated from the Champions League. In many respects Benitez's team are in great shape but, as all champions must, they have not yet demonstrated that they are capable of overcoming each and every obstacle.

"We're level on points with United," Benitez said. "If you'd asked in August if we wanted to be in that position you would have said 'Yes'. We can play better. We have some more players coming back from injury and we will be better." Will Sir Alex Ferguson look at this result and be pleased? "If they [United] lose points I'll be pleased too. Yes, I still believe we can win the league."

As the snow came down, and the temperature of the game rose, Gerrard's strike on 67 minutes looked like the kind of goal to win a derby, change a season, maybe even win a title. With his appearance at North Sefton magistrates court looming on Friday and with the predictable abuse from the Everton away support – although not as bad as usual – it will have been a precious moment for the Liverpool captain when he slid on his knees in front of the Kop having dispatched the ball past Tim Howard.

The feeling did not last because, however much they may languish in the shadow of their rivals, Everton are a formidable side. They were driven on by David Moyes to ask questions of Liverpool late into this game, when Yossi Benayoun fouled Victor Anichebe and Mikel Arteta struck the free-kick for Cahill to score. By then Benitez had substituted both Fernando Torres and Robbie Keane and Liverpool were caught in a defensive formation when what they desperately needed was another goal.

Even the best-laid Benitez plans sometimes need a Gerrard thunderbolt to rescue them and sometimes even the arch-strategist himself cannot legislate for his team cracking under pressure. "Torres was very tired," Benitez said. "To change Keane and put Dirk Kuyt on is more or less the same. I don't know what the difference would have been to have Torres tired in the penalty box to defend a free-kick like that."

What he meant was that it was not his tactical changes that cost the victory. Whether he has acted in the last two weeks like a manager who does not react well to pressure is a different matter. As a club, Liverpool can be a tense place at the best of times, that the boardroom and directors' box is once again alive with intrigue and infighting cannot help on nights such as these. Not that the FA Cup is of primary concern for Benitez, but there is no doubting Everton have the momentum for Sunday's fourth round game.

Torres did not look his best, missing the best chance of the match in the first half and when Liverpool did score they then sat back and conceded great swathes of Anfield to Everton. Until then, Moyes' side had found themselves defending for much of the second half but they turned things around admirably when they needed the goal. "It's another point against a good team who are working hard to win the league and buying players with that in mind," Moyes said. "We are not – and that shows how far we've come."

There were two penalty claims, the strongest for a challenge by the outstanding Phil Jagielka on Torres which referee Howard Webb called correctly. It was more of a tangle of legs than a swipe by the defender. Then moments before Gerrard's goal, Anichebe went to ground having bounced off Martin Skrtel and, rightly, Webb waved that one away, too.

It was physical at times, there was a high foul count, but it never became nasty.

Benitez opted not to play Javier Mascherano and in response Moyes switched his system from a five-man midfield to match up with Liverpool's 4-4-2 system within the first 20 minutes, both of which elements made it an open, attractive game. Cahill forced a great save from Pepe Reina with a backpost header that was Everton's best chance of the first half.

Torres's miss was the game's most inexplicable moment. On 28 minutes, Sami Hyypia's ball from front to back opened up the entire Everton team. As he ran onto it, Torres even got himself free of the defenders around him and from eight yards out with a second of time to spare he only needed to pick his spot but instead struck the outside of Tim Howard's left post.

Everton hung on in the second half, most noticeably when Leighton Baines dived in to stop Hyypia scoring after Gerrard's shot had been saved by Howard. Then came Gerrard's goal, one of those that felt like it might bear comparison with those goals against Olympiakos in 2004, Milan the following year and West Ham in the 2006 FA Cup final. He got the ball from Albert Riera and slammed it past Howard from 25 yards out.

Cahill's equaliser spoiled a famous night but the beauty of it for Moyes is that his team, five points behind fifth-placed Arsenal, deserved it. It might be that, more than anything, that pains the team who would like to think of themselves as potential champions.

Goals: Gerrard (68) 1-0; Cahill (87) 1-1.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Carragher, Skrtel, Hyypia, Aurelio; Kuyt, Gerrard, Alonso, Riera (Babel, 89); Torres (Lucas, 85), Keane (Benayoun, 67). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Dossena, Arbeloa, Mascherano.

Everton (4-1-4-1): Howard; Hibbert, Jagielka, Lescott, Baines; Neville; Anichebe, Osman, Arteta, Pienaar; Cahill. Substitutes not used: Nash (gk), Van der Meyde, Castillo, Rodwell, Jutkiewicz, Gosling, Kissock.

Referee: H Webb (South Yorkshire).

Booked: Everton Pienaar, Arteta.

Man of the match: Jagielka.

Attendance: 44,382.