The Santas were dressed in blue here yesterday and Evertonians duly received the best Christmas present they could have wished for. A first win over the old enemy for five years was good enough, but to stand 12 points ahead of them and - however brief it may be - second in the table seemed like very heaven. Four more points to add to the current 36 and they will even have achieved the season's first priority - avoiding relegation.
After a miserable summer culminating in the sale of Wayne Rooney, there were some pessimists who would have settled for that and no more. Now sights have been raised so high that last night the Everton manager, David Moyes, mildly resentful of the lack of appreciation his side have received, insisted: "Because we're second, you'd have to say, yes, we are championship contenders." They were not words that the truest Blue could have imagined hearing after Arsenal visited Goodison on the first day of the season and cruised home 4-1 easing up.
Since then, extraordinarily, Everton have collected more points than the champions, including seven victories by yesterday's margin. If less than exciting, with a tactical system based around a single striker, they illustrate that old-fashioned virtues of hard work, tenacity and discipline can still take teams a long way. As far as Europe? Who knows.
"We're coming from the bottom and doing everything we can to try and bridge the gap [on Liverpool] without having the finances they have," Moyes added. "It's a marvellous achievement, though I know it can change very quickly."
The softly-spoken Rafael Benitez was almost drowned out by the celebrations in the street below but had little to say except that Liverpool did not take their chances and that Everton were difficult opponents with their set-pieces and winning the second ball. His first Mersey derby was the 200th overall - a record for any two English teams - and will be remembered for its statistical significance more than anything else. For a long time, in truth, it was as grey as the weather.
Eyebrows had been raised by Benitez's team-selection, making five changes after the heroics against Olympiakos last Wednesday. The most startling was the omission of Xabi Alonso, the creative heart of the side, who was given 12 minutes at the end to salvage a game drifting out of Liverpool's grasp. With a shortage of strikers and a Premiership game at home to Portsmouth coming up on Tuesday, Benitez chose to use Neil Mellor on his own in attack and Florent Sinama-Pongolle wide down the right, while Steven Gerrard pushed up the middle in the 4-2-3-1 formation previously favoured at Valencia. That gave them numerical equality in a congested midfield as Everton stuck to their 4-5-1, but Lee Carsley proved equal to the task of holding Gerrard, Kevin Kilbane gave Josemi, another derby virgin, a torrid time with his strong running down the left and Salif Diao was no sort of replacement for Alonso.
In a disappointing first half there was barely one good chance apiece. Everton's came first, when Marcus Bent pulled out to the right and cleverly tricked John Arne Riise on the byline, cutting back a perfect cross for Tim Cahill, who from seven yards headed wide. The groans all round the ground were almost as loud when the incident was replayed on the big screens.
The visitors' big chance was a header from similar range, though Mellor, climbing to Gerrard's free-kick, did at least make the goalkeeper work; Nigel Martyn parried well, then punched out to Gerrard, whose strong drive was blocked. Apart from an inventive effort by Sami Hyypia, swivelling to shoot over the bar, a couple of yellow cards and one shout for a penalty, when Riise lunged at Leon Osman, that was about it until the interval.
It was Liverpool who decided to make a positive change, unsuccessfully. Benitez sent Antonio Nunez on down the right and switched to 4-4-2 with Sinama-Pongolle joining Mellor up the middle before soon pulling a muscle and having to come off. Next came Djimi Traoré but by then Everton were ahead and Goodison was rocking. In the 68th minute, Josemi and Nunez failed to stop Kilbane and Thomas Gravesen progressing down the left, the latter's cross falling for Marcus Bent and then Osman to set up Carsley for a low drive past the unsighted Chris Kirkland.
Riise had to clear Cahill's effort off the line following a corner and Moyes kept the pressure on by sending for Duncan Ferguson, who created familiar mayhem, adding to Kirkland's uncertainties and collecting the game's fifth yellow card; he retaliated to Hyypia's foul by knocking him over and might have been dismissed by a stricter referee, or one taken in by the Finn's dramatic fall.
Harry Kewell was next to try his luck as a Liverpool striker, but Gerrard remained the most likely source of a goal. Fifteen minutes from time he came into possession in almost the same spot as Wednesday's stunning late goal came from, only to drive wide. Next the Liverpool captain and Jamie Carragher pushed forward, forcing Martyn to touch Gerrard's shot over the bar.
There was one more horrible moment to withstand for the sort of Everton supporter who wrote in yesterday's local paper: "Let's face it, we really hate the derby." In added time, Traoré beat Martyn to Carragher's overhead kick and Cahill the villain became a hero by heading off the line.
"We're gonna win the League," they were singing on the blue half of Merseyside last night. In the pub, admittedly.Reuse content