The wait was awfully long and so emotionally draining through its most uncertain periods that it affected Jurgen Klopp physically, but this was not the return Liverpool would have mentally sketched during their 103-day hiatus.
They arrived at Goodison Park overflowing with enthusiasm to resume Project Pick Off Where We Left Off To Win The League, so much so that Sadio Mane raced into Everton’s half when the first whistle went, forgetting it was the signal to take a knee in support of Black Lives Matter, but Everton ensured their history will likely be further delayed.
For all the change – stands covered by flags rather than fans, temperature checks, tactical interventions posing as water breaks, five substitutions and such – there are some things that just stick. Seven of the last eight Merseyside derbies in the league on this ground have ended in a draw and Sunday’s edition was goalless.
The absence of the usual snarl of Goodison Park was meant to be beneficial for Liverpool, but while they dominated large swathes of play, they were without a decisive edge.
Amid a cacophony of ‘hold,’’drop,’ ‘man on’ and other indiscernible groans, they were slow off the mark after emerging from a portakabin, their makeshift dressing room in these social distancing times, taking the long route from the car park to the pitch.
Richarlison made the first move in the final third, running at Joel Matip before driving a low shot that skid just wide of the far post.
At the other end of the pitch, Everton teenager Anthony Gordon was the prey in a pressing trap, being dispossessed by Fabinho. Mane collected the loose ball and supplied Takumi Minamino, whose thundering strike went askew.
Liverpool started to heat up, with Matip wasting a glorious opportunity with a downward header from Trent Alexander-Arnold’s free kick and Roberto Firmino dragging an effort wide when he could have played in Naby Keita after good work from Jordan Henderson.
It was evident, though, that the Premier League leaders were missing the balance of the injured Andy Robertson stretching play on the left flank. James Milner was his deputy and needed to be replaced before the interval by Joe Gomez after picking up what seemed to be a hamstring issue.
The other notable absentee from their XI was Mohamed Salah, on the bench due to a minor knock, which reduced Liverpool’s potency on the right.
Minamino was selected in the Egyptian’s absence, counter-pressing well and displaying envious industry on his first league start for the club, but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was subbed on to add greater explosiveness in the second half.
As with the other games under Project Restart, there was a clear shift before and after the interval.
The opening 45 minutes felt like a warm-up to adjust to the new normal, with the intensity and automations coming more naturally in the second stanza.
Since the return of England’s top flight, only three goals have been scored before half-time in 11 matches.
As the minutes ticked on after the break, a Liverpool goal grew inevitable.
But with all their plotting and probing, Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s pass over the defence easily dissected Liverpool and fell to Richarlison. The Brazilian shrugged off the attention of Matip, only to sky his attempt from a tight angle.
Everton had been compact, defending diligently and needed more to be made of their rare openings. They were starved off the ball, not managing to crack 200 passes by 75 minutes while the visitors had registered 460.
Matip was another injury casualty for Liverpool, going down holding his right foot under no pressure. With Klopp’s changes, the ones enforced by injury as well as Divick Origi and Gini Wijnaldum replacing Firmino and the impressive Keita, the game opened up and Everton conjured more joy on the counter.
Richarlison’s low cross from the left was given clever backheel treatment by Calvert-Lewin, but Alisson managed to keep it out. The ball only travelled as far as Tom Davies, whose shot took a slight deflection off Gomez before cannoning off the far post.
The hosts cranked up the pressure, with Calvert-Lewin heading Mason Holgate’s flick wide at the far post and Alisson beating away a Richarlison hit.
Jordan Pickford tipped over Fabinho’s free-kick at the death, and while there were no goals, Everton will enjoy having likely lengthened Liverpool’s wait to be crowned champions.
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