It would be wrong to say the vultures had been eradicated from Gérard Houllier's life entirely yesterday. True, the discordant calls for the Liverpool manager's dismissal were quietened by this fourth successive Merseyside derby win at Goodison, but there was still a hint of what might have been.
Another result, and a mischievous picture editor could have made much of the six-foot figure in a bird costume lurking by the dug-out as Houllier made his appearance. But two hours later the logo that read "I'm a Capital of Culture vulture" carried no connotations, and the photographs this morning will be of smiles on the Frenchman's face.
Instead of contemplating Liverpool's worst start to a season since 1911-12, Houllier could wallow in a win on enemy territory - Everton have yet to emulate the feat this century - thanks to two goals from a player designed to ease the pressure on any stricken manager, Michael Owen. As a bonus, Harry Kewell, whom Liverpool bought this summer in an attempt to bring romance to a sometimes prosaic team, opened his account for the club after a run and pass from Owen.
"It shows the Reds are not dead yet," Houllier said, looking like he was about to deliver a "crisis, what crisis?" riposte to his critics. "It was not the best psychological atmosphere to prepare for the game, but the players kept their heads up." When he talked about Owen he positively purred. "He is only 23," he said, "which is younger than Ruud van Nistelrooy and Thierry Henry. He showed maturity with the third goal and is getting better."
David Moyes, the Everton manager, could not have cared less about Owen's development. "We had more chances than Liverpool," he said mournfully, "but it's a recipe for disaster if you give goals away at one end, miss them at the other."
The result was a victory not only for Owen's predatory instincts but for adventure. Houllier's side had gained just a point from their first three matches, but his line-up suggested either a man pushed to the point of risking all or an announcement of intent. Certainly a midfield that included El Hadji Diouf, Kewell and Vladimir Smicer did not suggest a defensive mind-set.
Attacking it might have been, but Merseyside derbies do not allow for players to dwell on the ball, and the opening exchanges reeked of musket powder. Gary Naysmith was booked within 90 seconds for a lunge at Diouf, and the game was punctuated with fouls and simmering tempers. Indeed, for 38 minutes the match seemed to be heading for deadlock, and players seemed more intent on settling scores than registering them, until Liverpool, who had always seemed the less frenetic, broke free from the squabbles. Kewell, the beneficiary of a misplaced pass from David Unsworth, skipped past the Everton defender's attempt to make amends and slipped a pass forward as Tobias Linderoth strained to cut off the danger. The ball was placed immaculately for Owen, who turned precisely to put himself into the optimum position, and then flicked the ball into the net via the far post.
Everton almost equalised immediately after half-time when Jerzy Dudek spilled a free-kick from Mark Pembridge and Tomasz Radzinski's attempt to bundle in the rebound was thwarted by Sami Hyypia's goal-line clearance, but the game swung more firmly in the Red direction in the 52nd minute. Milan Baros swerved in from the left and, with Everton rushing to cut off that danger, Owen stayed where he was. The ball was pulled back, and with deliberate care the England striker placed his shot into the corner.
To their credit, Everton responded with their best football at this point, and on another day might have secured at least a point. Wayne Rooney, put clear by an immaculate pass from Thomas Gravesen, pulled his shot wide, and he was guilty of an even more glaring miss when he rose to meet Gravesen's corner and, unchallenged, managed to direct his header two yards the wrong side of Dudek's post.
That attempt screamed for the aerial dominance of Duncan Ferguson, and his arrival did put extra pressure on the Liverpool goal, albeit from an unlikely source. Awarded a free-kick 25 yards out after 75 minutes, he surprised everyone by not causing a nuisance in the six-yard box and instead curled a delicate shot round the wall. Dudek certainly seemed to be caught unawares when the ball hit the bar.
It was clearly not going to be Everton's day, and that was confirmed after 79 minutes. Owen sped down the right, and when his cross was diverted just out of Emile Heskey's reach, Kewell followed up with an emphatic swing of his left foot.
"Easy, easy," the Liverpool supporters gloated. It was not, and Houllier knew it, but open season on his career had been closed. Even if only temporarily.
Everton 0 Liverpool 3
Owen 39, 52, Kewell 80
Half-time: 0-1 Attendance: 40,200Reuse content