Liverpool 3 Everton 1: Benitez wisdom badly needed to guide Gerrard on the correct use of the brain

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Great teams, like great players, invariably have to get strong at the broken places, and even if this is loose, premature talk in the cases of both Liverpool and their often inspirational captain, Steven Gerrard, their manager, Rafa Benitez, clearly believes that he has been given the perfect opportunity to make the point.

His disdain for the behaviour of Gerrard, who earned two yellow cards and a shameful dismissal in the space of just 35 seconds in the 18th minute of this still unformed derby match, was so sharp it might have provoked an affray in the back streets of his native Madrid.

Later, though, he became almost as gently profound as his countryman Cervantes writing about Don Quixote. Players need, he said, to play with their heart, but also their brain.

With the memory of Gerrard's catastrophic backpass into the path of Thierry Henry still vivid, Benitez was asked if his captain, and a key element in England's World Cup hopes, was maybe the victim of burn-out. No, suggested the manager, the need was not rest but some self-education in the requirements of professional responsibility.

Said Benitez: "You need to use your brain. You have to be calm. You have to analyse the game as it goes on. The first booking was a mistake and we can learn about that for the future. He knows what he has done. He understands. I don't think it is a case of mental burn-out. He made a disciplinary mistake, then a technical one.

"He's a player who has scored 19 times. People should not overreact. For me, the most important thing is to realise that this is something we can learn from so that it won't happen in the future."

Benitez could have put it another way. He could have said Gerrard's petulant booting away of the ball after a free-kick had been awarded against his team and his brainless lunge at Kevin Kilbane would have been reprehensible in some fledgling star. That it should come from someone who is widely acclaimed as one of the world's best players, who was captaining a team in a match of huge importance to both his club and the tribal passions of his native city, and, with a final twist of irony, was wearing the shirt number 08 as an ambassador for Liverpool's year as Europe's city of culture, was almost beyond comprehension.

Later Gerrard could not have been said to have been spectacularly penitent, saying: "I was more disappointed with the first booking than the second one. The first one was just stupid on my part but for the second one I thought he was going to strike the ball and I just went into the tackle. Those challenges are part and parcel of derbies..."

This one, certainly. The Everton manager, David Moyes, plainly devastated by his team's failure to control the game after Liverpool were reduced to 10 men so early, said that the refereeing of Phil Dowd was "fussy," and there was no shortage of circumstantial evidence : 11 bookings, and two dismissals. However, Dowd was not responsible for the spate of late tackling and a mood that was never far from sour.

Certainly, the referee appeared to have no option in the dismissals : Gerrard lost his head in a way that would have dismayed not just Sven Goran Eriksson but the entire nation if it had happened during the World Cup finals (remember the consequences for David Beckham when he was sent off for an immature reaction against Argentina?) and there was no doubt that Everton's substitute Andy van der Meyde had rammed his elbow into Xabi Alonso's face.

Random thuggery was never far from the surface, something which was only partially redeemed by the intelligent response of Liverpool to the loss of Gerrard, and two beautifully fashioned goals by Luis Garcia and Harry Kewell, the former's skill luminously exploiting the light-headedness of the Everton goalkeeper Richard Wright when he raced off his line. Before that, Phil Neville's nervy header into his own goal was less a personal disaster than the result of a burst pressure applied quite surgically by Alonso.

In Gerrard's absence, Benitez's best signing grew into his responsibilities magnificently. He got on the ball and he passed it with great vision and almost perfect accuracy. That, plus the efficiency that is the manager's chief article of faith and the relentless work of men like Jamie Carragher and Steve Finnan, was more than enough to wipe out Everton's advantage in manpower before the dismissal of Van der Meyde. Everton, badly missing the craft of Mikel Arteta, were briefly heartened when Tim Cahill scored from a corner and there were moments when Leon Osman brought a little bite, and a little thought, to the challenge.

It was far from enough, though, to lift the gloom of Moyes. Having superbly rescued the season, the Everton manager was obliged to recognise that his team had failed, utterly, to underpin their resurrection at Anfield, where it matters so hugely in psychological terms.

He said: "It was an opportunity missed. We had a chance to do better than we did. We could have done with Mikel Arteta's composure and passing ability. He could have taken the sting out of it a bit, but he wasn't quite right."

Meanwhile, Benitez was measuring his progress. He liked the look of it, saying: "We still need to improve in some areas, but you see players with more game intelligence now. They are learning and they are understanding things better. How close are we? We're closer to where I want us to be. The most important thing today was that the team knew what to do when they had 10 players."

That Steven Gerrard went missing was an inconvenience to Liverpool, no more than that as it turned out. But then it may have been a bonus for England, if it makes him stop and reflect on the value of the brain rather than that merely of the heart.

Goals : Neville (og, 45) 1-0; Garcia (47) 2-0; Cahill (61) 2-1; Kewell (84) 3-1.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Hyypia, Carragher, Riise; Gerrard, Alonso, Sissoko, Kewell (Warnock, 87); Garcia, Crouch (Morientes, 90). Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Kromkamp, Fowler.

Everton (4-4-2): Wright; Hibbert, Weir, Stubbs, Naysmith; Osman, Neville, Cahill, Kilbane (Van der Meyde); Beattie, McFadden (Ferguson, 67). Substitutes not used: Turner (gk), Yobo, Davies.

Referee : P Dowd (Staffordshire).

Booked : Liverpool Gerrard, Alonso, Kewell. Everton: Cahill, Stubbs, Kilbane, Weir, Ferguson, Neville, Hibbert.

Sent off : Gerrard; Van der Meyde.

Man of the match: Alonso.

Attendance: 44,923.

Comments