Liverpool 0 Everton 0: Benitez red-faced after 'small club' taunt backfires

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The Independent Football

His diversion tactics worked wondrously in comparison to those fine-tuned on the training ground and yet, even from such a cerebral operator as Rafael Benitez, there was little consolation in the performance of the Liverpool manager at the 205th Merseyside derby.

Typically, recriminations proved infinitely more entertaining than the football on Saturday and despite a derby devoid of incident, style or quality Merseyside was granted its necessary argument courtesy of two little words Benitez launched into the volatile and enemy territory of Goodison Park. "Small club" he said of Everton, and while a city embraced the opportunity for impassioned debate, the barren response of Liverpool to a negative wall of blue constructed by David Moyes went blissfully ignored. Almost.

Fired with indignation from a 3-0 defeat to Everton in September, Liverpool, assured conquerors of Chelsea on their last home visit, had also portrayed themselves as ready to reaffirm belated entry into the title race and the vast resources that have committed George Gillet Jnr and Tom Hicks to a £470m takeover of Anfield. Instead, through a procession of anxious punts during a dominant second half and the constant inability of wide players to beat a man, Liverpool merely illuminated the deficiencies.

"Everything was in front of us, nothing behind, no runs or anything," insisted Alan Stubbs, who led a trio of outstanding defensive performances with Joseph Yobo and Joleon Lescott in what may prove his last taste of this parochial affair. The 35-year-old added: "You're going to be bitter when you've not had a result. He [Benitez] has got to look at his own team because they didn't do much to break us down."

Benitez's classless comment was unworthy of Everton but also from any manager of Liverpool, for whom the big-club label brokers no argument, and was not the frustrated outburst of which some later excused him. To the detriment of the Spaniard's reputation, his criticism was premeditated - made repeatedly after the game and insinuated in his pre-match press conference, and merely ingratiated him with those fixated on cheap point-scoring instead of answers on why Liverpool squandered two of an invaluable kind in the championship race.

In his defence, Benitez at least offered two bitter old rivals more tangible debate than the contest itself. "He said we had seven men behind the ball on radio, eight on television and nine to the papers. He'll be accusing us of ball-tampering by midnight," ranking high among the humorous Everton retorts. The England strikers Andrew Johnson and Peter Crouch each forced a save from their respective opposing goalkeepers with the Liverpool centre-forward scuffing a glorious opening at the death. In 17 days Liverpool enter the Nou Camp, that homage to beautiful football where the Anfield club were once accused of "betraying football" when Gerard Houllier secured a goalless draw through playing no one in attack, and it was Benitez himself who revealed the hypocrisy of his opinion on the financial divide in modern football.

Everton, he explained, "were deep, compact, narrow, playing counter-attack and trying to score from set-pieces - you can understand it because we are a top side". The Liverpool manager's ambition against the European champions? "Normally away from home we play compact, deep and well-organised but with creating chances, not waiting for the other team to make a mistake. I would be happy with the same score away in Barcelona."

Moyes came for a goalless draw and Liverpool showed neither the guile or quality to combat an approach that Benitez later admitted he had been working on all week. And what of his soon-to-be infamous taunt? "Everton are not a small team. Everton are one of the big clubs in England," Moyes responded. "We are, at this present time, smaller than Liverpool, but I'll tell you what we are, we are a competitive football club, determined football club, and we are trying to achieve as much as we can. Today we came here and matched a football club that has spent an awful lot of money in building their side. Not only today, we also did it four months ago at Goodison." Seizing Benitez's invitation to accept the moral high ground, Moyes added: "I don't really want to get into it. I'd be disappointed if Rafa had called Everton a small club because I think, if he was managing Everton, he would have tried to do a similar job here."

Small, medium or of faded grandeur, with four points from six this season they have proved one enormous irritant to the title aspirations of their illustrious neighbours.

Liverpool (4-3-1-2): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Agger, Riise; Pennant, Gerrard, Alonso; Kuyt; Bellamy (Fowler, 85), Crouch. Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Hyypia, Gonzalez, Zenden.

Everton (4-4-1-1): Howard; Hibbert, Yobo, Stubbs, Lescott; Arteta, Neville, Carsley, Osman; Cahill; Johnson (Anichebe, 80). Substitutes not used: Wright (gk), Naysmith, Beattie, Fernandes.

Booked: Everton Osman, Neville, Arteta.

Man of the match: Stubbs.

Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).

Attendance: 44,234.