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May 5, 2013

Everton aggrieved in derby stalemate

Throughout the Premier League era, Merseyside derbies have been notorious for red cards. This season, they have been dominated by a different kind of controversy. The disputed dismissal has been replaced by the disallowed goal.

At Goodison Park in October, Luis Suarez had a late Liverpool winner ruled out for offside in a 2-2 draw. The main talking point of the Anfield return came when Everton centre-back Sylvain Distin headed in from a Leighton Baines corner, only for referee Michael Oliver to chalk it off; the referee ruling that Victor Anichebe had fouled keeper Pepe Reina.

• O'Farrell: Draw brings focus
• Walsh: Derby whimper symbolic

Perhaps the adage about decisions evening themselves out over a season is true after all. Not that David Moyes saw it that way. In the press room afterwards, he could not hide his frustration at being denied a first Anfield win in 11 years as Everton's manager. "Have you seen it again? You all know it's not a foul," he said. "So it's disappointing, because it's not easy winning here.

"You all remind me that I've not won here. Bloody hell. I need to get something going for me. You score a good goal, you need to get something.

"The referee said that Victor impeded the goalkeeper. But it was the goalkeeper who ran into him, so it can't possibly be a free-kick."

Brendan Rodgers, perhaps unsurprisingly, saw it differently. "I think when you see it again, you'll notice that the referee's got good sight of it," the Liverpool manager said. "As soon as the ball has left for a corner, he's blown up for a foul."

Rodgers was happy to give credit to the official, the Premier League's youngest referee at 28, for his handling of a frenetic match.

"I thought Michael was good today," he said. "He's a young referee coming through and I thought he was excellent."

Oliver was undoubtedly aware of the recent history of a fixture that has produced more red cards than any other in Premier League history; 20 in total. The referee produced only three yellows here, and made every effort to keep his cards in his pocket.

By and large, his leniency succeeded. Aside from one incident near to half-time, when Marouane Fellaini's stray arm appeared to catch Steven Gerrard in the face, a passionate derby rarely threatened to boil over.

But if red cards never looked likely, hopes of a goal flickered all too briefly amid the game's frantic pace. If both of this season's Merseyside derbies will be remembered chiefly for disallowed goals, it should not be forgotten that both ended in draws. This was Liverpool's 12th league stalemate of the season, and Everton's 14th. A repeated failure to convert one point into three this season has cost both clubs a serious run at the Champions League.

It is the reason why, faint European hopes aside, their latest clash was for little more than local pride. That pride counted for plenty, though, even on a day which started with the city's two clubs united.

Before kick-off, Liverpool's fans on the Kop held up 12,000 pieces of paper, forming a mosaic thanking Everton for their support in uncovering the truth about the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. But with that heartfelt tribute out of the way, both sets of fans set about enjoying a good old family row.

Everton supporters set off a series of smoke bombs, while Liverpool's mocked the fact that their neighbours have gone 18 years without a trophy. When one of the smoke bombs turned out to be purple, it drew derision from the Kop. Beneath them, the players laboured.

"We need to find one or two players who can help us make the difference in games like this," Rodgers admitted. Both sides will attempt to scramble some consolation from improving defensive records. This was Everton's sixth clean sheet in eight games, built on a terrific display by centre-backs Phil Jagielka and Distin.

Jagielka, Everton's captain, marked the 500th appearance of his club career with a couple of vital first-half blocks; one to deny Gerrard, another to frustrate Philippe Coutinho.

He continued to marshal the defence superbly through a spell of intense Liverpool pressure early in the second half, helped by Distin and Tim Howard.

Everton goalkeeper Howard recovered well to block Daniel Sturridge as the striker tried to round him after racing on to Coutinho's pass. When Gerrard then darted on to a Sturridge through ball and did get past the keeper, Distin got back to turn the goalbound shot behind at the near post.

But while the defending was generally sound from both sides, with Jamie Carragher as dependable as ever for Liverpool in his 30th and final derby before retirement, the build-up play and finishing lacked composure.

Fellaini set the tone for a frustrating afternoon in front of goal when he escaped Carragher's attentions to poke a Baines free-kick wide from six yards in the 17th minute. The absence of a prolific striker continues to hurt Everton, even though they have recorded impressive away draws at Tottenham and Arsenal in addition to Anfield in the last month.

"There was a lot said about our run-in," Moyes said. "But we've been to Arsenal, we've been to Liverpool, we've been to Tottenham. We've defended terrifically well in all of those games.

"But in the final third we've just lacked the real bits to get goals, and it's probably shown up a wee bit recently. It wasn't showing up at the start of the season, because we were scoring for fun, but it's certainly more noticeable at this time of the season."

MAN OF THE MATCH: Phil Jagielka. The England centre-back has taken on the Everton captaincy as Phil Neville prepares to leave the club, and looks born to the role. It was thanks to him that his team were so well organised that Liverpool struggled to create chances. "Jagielka was right up there with the best today, I thought," his manager said. It was hard to argue.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: It is too easy to say that Liverpool struggle without Luis Suarez - and patently false, given that they had secured Premier League victories on the two previous occasions he had been absent. But while Philippe Coutinho flourished for spells and Steven Gerrard was a menace, Brendan Rodgers' side lacked the invention to break through.

EVERTON VERDICT: David Moyes' side have kept alive their extremely slim hopes of European qualification through a difficult run-in by improving their organisation. This was a sixth clean sheet in eight matches, and their point was well deserved. Their attacking threat was limited, though, and a first Anfield victory since 1999 rarely looked likely.

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