Love him or loathe him, Luis Suarez is a man you just cannot keep out of the limelight and so it proved once more in this pulsating Merseyside derby. A match that featured a dramatic first-half fightback by Everton – from two down after 20 minutes to 2-2 after 35 – ended with just one name on people's lips, that of Liverpool's Uruguayan No7.
Suarez it was who celebrated Liverpool's opening goal with a Klinsmann-style swallow dive in front of David Moyes, the Everton manager who had suggested beforehand that Liverpool's South American "has got history" when it comes to taking tumbles.
That was just for starters. Suarez added Liverpool's second goal and then was denied a legitimate third deep in stoppage time when he lashed a close-range finish high into the Gwladys Street net. Only after he had run away in celebration did the assistant referee raise his flag for offside – TV replays showed he was onside when Sebastian Coates flicked on a Steven Gerrard free-kick, leaving Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager, to rue his side's luck.
"It is a free-kick from deep, the ball is in the air for a long time, the official is just looking across the line, he is clearly onside and when [Coates] heads it through, he is at minimum level and it is a wonderful finish. He should have had his goal and it would have been a brilliant win for us."
Evertonians might argue their team were due a big decision in a derby match – remember Jack Rodwell's red card in this fixture 12 months ago – and Moyes himself argued that it was not a foul by Leon Osman on Gerrard in the build-up. Moreover, he claimed that by that stage Suarez should not have even been on the pitch after the referee, Andre Marriner, showed him only a yellow after an incident in the 71st minute when he appeared to scrape his studs down the back of Distin's heels. "It is definitely [a red]," said the Scot.
When the dust settles, though, both managers will find cause for satisfaction from a contest that was so much more than just the Luis Suarez show – it gave us one of the most breathless first halves in the history of a fixture now 219 games old.
An Everton side seeking to underline their current supremacy on Merseyside won their first corner after 16 seconds but instead it was Liverpool who gained the early ascendancy and got in front after 14 minutes when Jose Enrique ran in behind Seamus Coleman and drove a low ball across the six-yard box. Leighton Baines blocked off Raheem Sterling as he tried to reach it but Suarez, arriving beyond the far post, picked it up and drove in a low cross-shot that deflected in off the legs of Baines. Suarez duly made a beeline for the home dugout where he threw himself to the turf in theatrical fashion. "It's called Scouse wit," said Rodgers.
For his first meeting with Everton, the Liverpool manager had fielded the Reds' least-experienced derby team since November 1970, sending out five players new to this fixture in Nuri Sahin, Joe Allen, Suso, Sterling and Andre Wisdom – the last three all teenagers.
It was Sterling who made arguably the biggest impact, frightening Everton's back line with his pace. And after Osman had tried once to trip him as he sped away in the middle of the pitch, the subsequent foul by the Everton man – albeit accidental-looking as he clipped his heel – led to Liverpool's second goal. Gerrard curled over the free-kick and Suarez was left free by Nikica Jelavic to nod the ball on into the far corner.
Fortunately for Everton, they snatched a lifeline moments later. After Marouane Fellaini's shot was deflected behind, Brad Jones, deputising for the injured Pepe Reina, punched the resulting corner to the edge of the box where Osman took one touch and then drove the ball back through the forest of legs and into the bottom corner.
It was breathless stuff and the heat was rising too as Sterling, already booked for obstructing Baines, escaped a second yellow for a clear trip on the same player. By the 35th minute it was 2-2 after Mirallas's attempted cross from the left struck his compatriot Fellaini and the big Belgian picked up the loose ball and fired it low into the six-yard box where, with Enrique ball-watching, Naismith slotted home his first goal in Everton blue.
Evertonian tails were up and it was Mirallas, with his pace and direct running down the left, who was leading the charge. One jinking run ended with a flashing shot that Jones tipped behind. "He was outstanding," Moyes said of Mirallas. "He was fantastic in that period. [For] 20 minutes up to half-time he was nearly unstoppable and a bit unlucky not to score."
Goodison roared its anger when Suarez trod on Mirallas's foot leading up to half-time and the winger's failure to reappear after half-time was "a big blow", Moyes admitted.
Just as telling was Rodgers's tactical reshuffle as he withdrew Suso and Sahin and switched to a back three, with Coates joining Skrtel and Daniel Agger in central defence to help deal with Everton's aerial menace and Jonjo Shelvey coming on to bolster the midfield.
Sterling now moved up front alongside Suarez and the switch almost paid immediate dividends when the 17-year-old got in behind the Everton defence but fluffed his shot. "I made the tactical change to try and help us defensively but give us a wee bit more offensive threat. I thought that worked quite well for us," said Rodgers.
An air of caution seemed to take hold but there were still openings, notably for Jelavic who missed a golden chance when glancing wide from Baines's free-kick into the box. Just when it seemed like the game would meander to a draw, that man Suarez sparked it back into life. First he caught Distin to earn his yellow card and then he found the net after Gerrard had floated in a far-post free-kick and Coates headed the ball on. A flag went up and a huge sigh of relief rolled around Goodison.
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