This time it was different and it’s over. It’s finally bloody over. 21 years and five months since Everton last won at Anfield, the most depressing sequence of results in the club’s 143-year history was shattered as Carlo Ancelotti’s team beat Liverpool 2-0 this evening. For far too long, Kevin Campbell’s fourth-minute goal, scored way back in September 1999, had stood as the last time a Toffees player had scored the winner on the reds’ turf.
That accolade now, effectively, goes to the warrior-like Richarlison, a player whose rebirth this month coincided nicely with history’s beckon call and who fired home unerringly in the third minute to send Everton on their way to a cathartic, misery-ending victory. Gylfi Sigurdsson’s late second merely ensured that the points in a Derby would go the Blue side of Merseyside for the first time in over a decade.
To outsiders, the spontaneous outpouring of emotion at the final whistle, the jubilant hugs, clenched-fist bellows and boisterousness in the changing room may seem curiously excessive but they were a visceral illustration of how much this meant to Everton’s players and staff, and not just a local like Tom Davies or the long-haulers like Seamus Coleman and Duncan Ferguson. It was clear that newcomers like Ben Godfrey, James Rodriguez and even Ancelotti himself had also grasped the importance to the club and its supporters of banishing this rotten hoodoo.
In the end, it didn’t take a fantastic attacking performance — although the goal that would have proved to be the winner had Sigurdsson not stroked home a wonderfully composed penalty late on was a gorgeously simple but beautifully executed moment from two class players — but, as would be expected against the defending champions, a resolute defensive stand and some heroics from Jordan Pickford.
That last part in itself was gloriously poetic. Everton’s goalkeeper has been the subject of some shameful media scrutiny and criticism over what happened in the Goodison Derby last October, hysteria that continued right up to kick off this evening. But he responded with a man-of-the-match display, playing behind a defensive unit that could probably all have laid claim to that accolade, such was their individual and collective effort.
Mason Holgate has had an inconsistent season but was immense, as were Michael Keane, Godfrey, Coleman and Lucas Digne who left everything out on the pitch in terms of effort and desire. This was a towering display by Everton’s rearguard that began at the front but which was founded on discipline and shape throughout the team against a notoriously dangerous Liverpool attack.
At times it needed to be because the Blues often made it more difficult for themselves than need be with some poor ball retention and it was no surprise that in the final reckoning they had just 28% of the possession. It didn’t matter because they were more than good enough at the back.
After going ahead, this was largely about daring Liverpool to break them down, something Jürgen Klopp’s men had failed to do in three successive home games against Burnley, Brighton and Manchester City. Their only goal at Anfield in 2021 so far had come from the penalty spot and thanks to Pickford, that record extended to more than 500 minutes since Sadio Manés early goal against West Bromwich Albion almost two months ago.
With Ancelotti having indicated yesterday that Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Allan were available having recovered from hamstring strains, the team sheet when it was announced an hour before kick-off was a little disappointing. No doubt over an abundance of caution, particularly in the case of the Brazilian, the manager named both players on the bench but he also eschewed the pace and directness of players like Josh King and Alex Iwobi, opting for a midfield of André Gomes and Abdoulaye Doucouré with James deployed ahead of them behind Richarlison.
Thanks to the impressively dogged Tom Davies, Allan wasn't needed and the bet on the Colombian’s quality, despite the risk of him being booted around Anfield in retribution by the likes of Andy Robertson — the Scot left one sly elbow in on Rodriguez but was otherwise pretty well behaved — proved to be a prescient one as James laid on the opening goal with a typical expression of his vision. It only took this most majestic of players 2½ minutes to have a decisive say in his first Anfield derby.
Doucouré seized on Thiago Alcantara’s wayward header and knocked the ball forward, Ozan Kabak nodded it back to where it had come from and Doucouré’s next header fell to James 30 yards from goal. The former Real Madrid man took a touch to bring it down before threading a pass between two defenders behind whom Richarlison had made a perfectly-timed run and he made no mistake with a driven finish across his compatriot Alisson Becker and into the far corner.
If it felt as though Everton had scored far too early, the 80 stress-inducing minutes that followed until Sigurdsson tucked home from the spot provided confirmation, not least because they never really established a prolonged foothold in the game.
It meant that Liverpool were left to mount pressure in waves that ebbed and flowed throughout much of the contest and which in combination with a swirling wind, demanded both tireless work and concentration from the Blues’ players, a challenge they accepted and consistently met. And, again, on the odd occasion they couldn’t, Pickford came to the rescue.
The keeper palmed away a dangerous cross after Doucouré had given the ball away in midfield while Keane got enough in the way of a Roberto Firmino shot after Liverpool had tried to force their way through the middle of the visitors’ defence in the 19th minute.
The resulting corner was cleared by Godfrey but only as far as Jordan Henderson who smacked a crisply-sweet volley that was searching out the inside of the post before Pickford leapt across his line and finger-tipped it brilliantly around the upright. It was a vital and absolutely top-drawer save.
Liverpool kept coming and Trent Alexander-Arnold demanded another save from the keeper which he proved equal to by palming it over his crossbar.
Klopp had come into the game with significant selection problems in defence which was why he had been forced to deploy Henderson as a makeshift centre-half but he, too, succumbed to injury with less than half an hour gone and had to be replaced by Nathaniel Phillips.
In truth, Everton didn’t test the novice defensive partnership of Phillips and Ozan Kabak nearly enough but in the 33rd minute they came very close to doubling their lead with what would have been a fantastic goal. Digne dug out a brilliant cross from near the touchline as only he can and it was met by a diving Coleman of all people from about six yards out but he could only plant the header too close to Alisson and the Brazilian parried the ball away to his left.
The Frenchman sliced wide of goal from the corner and at the other end Phillips got round the back to meet a free-kick but, thankfully, headed into the side-netting.
Halfway home, Everton found themselves under renewed pressure at the start of the second half. Sadio Mané had as good a chance as Liverpool would get just two minutes after the restart when he met Robertson's cross with a header but Pickford denied him.
A minute later, the Senegalese popped up in a similar position but planted Curtis Jones's cross over the bar and Keane made a vital last-ditch tackle to deny the same player in front of goal a few minutes later.
Just before an hour had elapsed, Carlo Ancelotti introduced Gylfi Sigurdsson for the slightly disappointing André Gomes who had been treading a tightrope on a yellow card since the 41st minute and then replaced James with Calvert-Lewin and it was the Icelandic international who would eventually kill the contest when the English striker was felled in the box.
Sigurdsson had had a tame half-volley saved a few minutes after he came on and Pickford had done really well to make himself big and first block then gather from Mohamed Salah but Everton picked the hosts off on the counter attack.
Davies passed forward for Richarlison who spun his man expertly and raced ahead before playing in Calvert-Lewin whose initial shot was saved by Alisson. The striker was looking to tuck in the rebound when Alexander-Arnold felled him trying to make a saving challenge and referee Chris Kavanagh awarded a penalty.
A quick check of the pitch-side monitor assured the referee that he had correctly applied the new rules whereby the defender’s intent is no longer a factor in these kinds of decisions and Sigurdsson placed the spot-kick away from the keeper’s reach to effectively guarantee Everton the win.
Firmino had another effort that the officials adjudged to have been deflected wide off Ben Godfrey's boot, Pickford had to palm a Giorginio Wijnaldum's fierce effort over and Sigurdsson lashed the last shot of the match wide before Kavanagh called time on a famous night for the Blue side of Merseyside.
Ultimately, none of the excuses around Liverpool’s injuries and the mitigating circumstances of empty stadia due to the pandemic matter. Everton have lost derbies they should have won, had almost no rub of the green in these games for years, been screwed over by match officials and shot themselves in the foot enough times that it didn’t matter how, when or why they finally won this fixture. The only thing that mattered was what they did and that they finally got this dreaded 21½-year-old monkey off their back.
The psychological hold this fixture has had on Everton Football Club has felt crippling in recent years; a self-perpetuating and destructive mental obstacle that seemed to grow stronger with each passing season. The inexplicable failings at home against the likes of West Ham, Newcastle and Fulham in recent weeks remain a vexing issue that Ancelotti will need to solve but in the wider context of Everton’s sense of self and its ambitions, results like this and the one against Tottenham in the FA Cup 10 days ago could prove to be important milestones.
The tragedy, of course, was that no fans were there at Anfield to see it. Two decades of Blues have gone across Stanley Park and suffered either valiant draws or painful defeat but the hope now is that with the hex gone, Evertonians will be able to savour victory at Anfield in person some day very soon. Until then, just drink this in, Blues!
It's that time of the season again. Time for the ritual dread of the trip across the Park; for the cursing of past luck; lamenting past failings; and for the examination of an intractable Everton psychological hangup that has, for so many years now, held them back from winning this fixture.
It took the Toffees 21 years to finally win at Old Trafford before Bryan Oviedo struck that uplifting goal under Roberto Martinez in 2013; maybe that numerical coincidence can be the omen for them at Anfield this weekend.
Or maybe the combination of Carlo Ancelotti's management, the unpredictability of this COVID-affected season and the absence of fans on the Kop will be enough to tip the scales in Everton's direction.
They do come up against a Liverpool side on their worst run of form for a long time, particularly at home where they were utterly dominant before Burnley punctured their apparent infallibility on their own turf. Then first Brighton and then Manchester City came to Merseyside and left with all three points, all part of a sequence that has seen the reds lose five of their last seven Premier League games and slip out of the top four.
While they've been awful at home recently, perhaps Everton's trump card coming into the derby is their away form. They're unbeaten on their travels since the start of November and have won four of their last five and if they can channel any of that spirit of invincibility on Saturday, then they stand a good chance of finally ending this miserable run on this ground.
Ancelotti will be without Yerry Mina after he was withdrawn from the defeat to Manchester City because of a calf injury. The Colombian was restored at centre-half alongside Michael Keane after sitting out the fixture against Fulham last Sunday but lasted just 18 minutes of the 3-1 defeat to Pep Guardiola's side before having to come off.
The manager suggested that Mina would almost certainly be absent at Anfield during his post-match press conference on Wednesday evening, saying: "He had a problem on his calf," the Italian said. "I don't think he will be available for the game on Saturday."
Given his speed, physicality and impressive recent form, Ben Godfrey would seem to be the better replacement for Mina, with Mason Holgate starting at right-back again and Lucas Digne dropping back to left-back.
The hope then is that both Allan and Dominic Calvert-Lewin will be available, however, as both have been sorely missed during their absences. The striker has missed the last two games with a hamstring strain but the Brazilian hasn't played since the first week of December because of a tear of his own hamstring that has only now finally healed.
He was withheld from the City clash for reasons that Blues fans fervently hope was so that he could be fully prepared for the derby and not because of any sort of relapse. Should he start, he could either replace Tom Davies — that would be harsh as the young Englishman has done really well of late — or partner him, perhaps so Gylfi Sigurdsson can be rested.
If Calvert-Lewin passes his fitness test, his presence back up front would allow Richarlison to move back out to the left flank and Alex Iwobi to continue on the right if James Rodriguez is used off the bench again.
The biggest selection issue, though, may well surround the goalkeeper's spot where the presence of Jordan Pickford would almost certainly provide a lightning rod for unwanted attention based on what happened in the Goodison derby back in October.
Neither Liverpool fans nor the media have stopped going on about his challenge on Virgil van Dijk that has sidelined the Dutchman ever since and the prudent thing on Ancelotti's part would surely be to rotate Robin Olsen back in and avoid the drama altogether.
Because of Van Dijk's injury and that of Joe Gomez and Joel Matip, Jürgen Klopp is working with unfamiliar and inexperienced central defensive pairings. He had dropped Jordan Henderson into the back four over the last couple of League games, first to partner Fabinho and then, after the Brazilian suffered an injury of his own, new signing Ozan Kabak, who enjoyed a better evening in the Champions League against RB Leipzig than he did in the 3-1 defeat at Leicester last weekend.
Klopp is hopeful that Fabinho will recover from a muscle injury in time while Naby Keita is a possible returnee in midfield but if Ancelotti will have learned a anything from watching Liverpool in recent games it's that while the reds remain dangerous going forward, they are vulnerable at the back when truly tested.
The recipe for success should then be simple enough: keep things tight and compact at the back while having enough adventure and intensity going forward to really get amongst whatever defence Klopp goes with. With their opponents wounded by recent League results and without the added dimension of fans in the ground, Everton may never get better conditions in which to finally win at Anfield and put this dreaded hoodoo behind them.
Kick-off: 5:30pm, Saturday, 20 February, 2021
Referee: Chris Kavanagh
VAR: Andre Marriner
Last Time: Liverpool 5 - 2 Everton
Predicted Line-up: Olsen, Holgate, Keane, Godfrey, Digne, Davies, Allan, Doucouré, Iwobi, Richarlison, Calvert-Lewin