Gerrard inspires Reds to victory but injury jinx strikes once more

Liverpool 2 Everton 1
Click to follow
The Independent Football

It is rare indeed to see a man as mild as Rafael Benitez join his players on the pitch at full-time, to salute an exultant Kop and to embrace those original Scouse warriors Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard. But some matches bring out the devil in anyone and yesterday's epic struggle with Everton gave Liverpool back their self-esteem and the promise of fourth place, although it came at such a price.

Benitez has prolonged Liverpool's season through an injury crisis that would have broken lesser managers, but Milan Baros' red card yesterday leaves him with absolutely no available strikers. Djibril Cissé, Florent Sinama-Pongolle, Neil Mellor, Fernando Morientes, Harry Kewell and Luis Garcia are all injured - such an extraordinary mess that for a moment they might even consider the unthinkable and recall El Hadji Diouf from loan at Bolton. But he too is serving a three-match ban.

Baros' red card was a moment of utter folly, a desperate, crunching 77th-minute challenge on Alan Stubbs' knee that did not even earn him a glance from Benitez as he walked off the pitch. It is bad enough that it will rule the Czech striker out for three matches, but, coming after injuries to Morientes and Garcia in the first half, it was disastrous. For now, however, Liverpool can glory in closing Everton's lead over them in fourth to just four points.

This was no less tense and rancorous an affair then Merseyside would have expected. A game in which Duncan Ferguson's struggle with the exemplary Carragher threatened to reach boiling point and Moyes left the pitch furious at what he regarded as too little injury time. Gerrard was scarcely more pleased with Baros, whom he pointedly singled out afterwards for "not taking his chances and then getting sent off". Baros had two clear runs at Nigel Martyn's goal in the second half after Gerrard, and then Luis Garcia, had given Liverpool the lead in a first half that they dominated before injuries took their toll. After Tony Hibbert's foul on Garcia on 26 minutes Dietmar Hamann stroked the free-kick short to Gerrard and, despite an Everton wall that broke hungrily towards him, his shot found the corner of the net.

Liverpool had already replaced Stephen Warnock with Antonio Nunez when their second was scored on 32 minutes, which owed in part to a rare moment of indecision from Martyn.

"I think Nigel could have done better with both goals," Moyes said, "but how can you criticise what Nigel has done for Everton?"

From further away than most would accept as reasonable to beat a man like Martyn, Fernando Morientes struck a sweet, dipping volley that the Everton goalkeeper had to shuffle backwards to deal with. Moyes reported that his goalkeeper had said that he feared carrying the ball back into his net and instead he patted it back on to the crossbar. When it fell back into play, Garcia nudged a simple header into the net.

Then the curse of the injuries returned to Benitez's men. First Hamann's knee seemed to give way of its own accord and then Morientes struggled to the touchline after a challenge from Joseph Yobo. By the time Garcia buckled and fell to the turf the stretcher-bearers had more work than they could handle and Benitez had used up all his substitutions.

It was only because Garcia could not be replaced that he returned to the field, hobbling, after half-time. With six minutes of the half played, Stubbs was dispossessed by Baros who was only stopped at the last by Hibbert's challenge. Just minutes before his dismissal, the striker went through again and, although he left Martyn on the floor, the Everton goalkeeper turned the shot wide with his foot.

"We are not in the same league as Liverpool financially," Moyes said. "I still think Everton are doing quite well. If I had won and gone four points clear of them [in fact they would have been 10 clear] then I would have come in here singing and dancing."

When Cahill beat Jerzy Dudek with a low drive inside his post with eight minutes left, the nine Liverpool players who still had their fitness were required to hold out with real steel. Morientes and Hamann are out for three weeks, Garcia a little less.

"We have not just reduced the gap, but we have played better than them," Benitez said. "I'm delighted for the players, for the supporters and for the club. It's a fantastic victory."

But filling in for the missing might be the task that finally undoes Liverpool's season. "I might even," their manager said, "have to start training myself."

Goals: Gerrard (26) 1-0; Garcia (32) 2-0; Cahill (81) 2-1.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Dudek; Finnan, Carragher, Pellegrino, Warnock (Nunez, 17); Garcia, Gerrard, Hamann (Biscan, 40), Riise; Baros, Morientes (Smicer, 41). Substitutes not used: Hyypia, Carson (gk).

Everton (4-5-1): Martyn; Hibbert, Weir, Stubbs, Pistone (Watson 84); Osman, Yobo (Beattie, h-t), Carsley, Cahill, Kilbane; Bent (Ferguson, 55). Substitutes not used: Wright (gk), Naysmith.

Referee: R Styles (Hampshire)

Booked: Everton Weir, Yobo, Osman, Hibbert.

Sent off: Liverpool Baros (77).

Man of the match: Carragher.

Attendance: 44,224.