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Jan 25, 2009

Benitez's frustrations grow after another draw

Rafa Benitez, it seems, is fighting a war on all fronts and, just at the moment, he can't win any of them. There is the transatlantic conflict over contracts, control and Rick Parry's role.

There is the battle for supremacy over the country with Sir Alex Ferguson in which, since the Spaniard's verbal intervention, the Scot appears to be triumphing. Now two local skirmishes inside a week have been concluded, and unsatisfactorily for Liverpool as Everton can claim another moral victory.

Industrious and energetic, they excelled at Anfield again, albeit without the ball. Theirs was a rearguard action rewarded with a draw and home advantage in next week's replay. Liverpool, with another game added to a crowded schedule and an unwanted trip to Goodison Park, have a tougher task now to progress to the last 16.

"I don't think we're the favourites," insisted David Moyes. "What you do know is the players are extremely resilient. They have made it very hard for a side with great aspirations." They have revelled in the role of the city's poorer relations, compensating in spirit and togetherness for what they lack in resources. Sides with such a work ethic are rare.

It has been apparent in both games. There were similarities between the two derbies, with Steven Gerrard rifling Liverpool's goal in each and Everton's involving a Tim Cahill header. Familiarity brought discontent for Benitez, who was upset with Everton's stifling tactics. "To attack against 10 players behind the ball is not easy," he said. "I think we deserved to win. We had plenty of possession. They had one chance from a mistake, but before and after this it was us. We had control of everything."

That mistake, however, was significant. Leaving Cahill unchecked on Monday was costly. A lesson went unlearned, however, even if locating him has its difficulties. There is an entrepreneurial element to the Australian's play, especially in his ability to find space. It was displayed perfectly for Everton's opener. From a starting position on the goal line beyond the far post, Cahill meandered around the edge of the six-yard box to meet Steven Pienaar's delivery. His header was diverted by Joleon Lescott beyond the diving Jose Reina. The Spaniard had barely touched the ball in the FA Cup since saving Anton Ferdinand's penalty in the 2006 final. Besides being required to remove it from his net, he has still had little involvement in the competition.

With a lead, Everton's lack of attackers became an advantage. Their formation became 4-6-0 at times when Liverpool were in possession, Everton uniting in their defensive efforts to erect a blue barrier in front of Tim Howard's goal, and it required the outstanding piece of skill in the game to fashion a breakthrough.

But then Liverpool's two talismen combined with devastating effect. Fernando Torres had already touched the ball with his right foot and cushioned it on his chest before the piece de resistance. A left-footed backheel, a product of a fertile imagination and perfectly executed, sent Gerrard galloping away. "We know that the understanding between both has been crucial in the last season," said Benitez. "An exquisite piece of skill," added Moyes. Thereafter, Gerrard's second derby goal of the week was a drilled shot that defeated Howard at his near post. "He showed quality and he showed character," added Benitez, two days after his captain appeared in court.

Torres was scintillating at times in the second half, dovetailing pace and skill with the strength and resolve to stand up to the Everton defence. Gerrard was marauding with intent as Liverpool chased a winner, drawing a fine save from Tim Howard and veering from left flank to right at breakneck pace.

Yet the regret should be that their dominance of possession barely produced a first-half chance. Liverpool's urgency make the final minutes compelling viewing, their patience beforehand rendering the opening exchanges uneventful. Liverpool suggested the fault for that lay with the visitors. Moyes, unhappy with Benitez's implied criticism of his tactics, said: "Everton do things with dignity and style."

Those were not descriptions that might be applied to some of the chants. Amid talk of Kirkby and Kuwaitis, ownership of the city was disputed by both sets of supporters. The red half have become accustomed to being in the ascendant, but they are finding it harder to subdue the Blues.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Phil Jagielka - Plenty impressed in Everton's dependable defence but, as is often the case, Jagielka was their best player.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: The most encouraging element of the draw was the sign that the Gerrard-Torres axis is functioning well again. However, Ryan Babel failed to seize his opportunity, and they were more dangerous when Ryan Babel was introduced, while Dirk Kuyt, who spurned a late chance, appears to have lost his early-season goalscoring touch.

EVERTON VERDICT: Mikel Arteta was the latest addition to a lengthy list of absentees but Everton, as has become their habit, coped uncomplainingly. Operating without the ball for much of the game, their few available players covered huge amounts of ground to close Liverpool down. The question is how long they can continue to thrive in such difficult circumstances.

DOUBLE DUTCH: The initials are the same, but there the similarity usually ends. Yet Jamie Carragher executed a perfect Cruyff turn in the Everton box to surprise Leon Osman. Jamie Cruyff, or Johan Carragher, would be some player.

NOT SO KEANE: Substituted to his evident disappointment on Monday, Robbie Keane wasn't even selected on Sunday. Benitez confirmed the £20 million man isn't injured, which indicates how far he has fallen from approval.

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