LUIS SUAREZ was denied a perfectly-good winning goal as Liverpool’s recent bad luck with referees continued at Goodison in the 219th Merseyside derby.
The Reds raced into a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes that left the Blues shell-shocked after they had started the game the better side. But the Toffees fought back after Liverpool’s early smash and grab and were on level terms just 15 minutes later.
Liverpool looked lost at the back at that point and it seemed certain Everton would go on and score more. But the Reds tightened up in the second half – helped by two substitutions and a change in tactics – and should have won it at the death through Suarez.
Steven Gerrard’s ball into the box in added-on time was headed across goal by Sebastian Coates and Suarez reacted first to stab the ball home.
However, a linesman’s flag cruelly curtailed the celebrations with replays showing the Uruguay star was at least a yard onside – and being played on by two Everton players.
Coates’ challenge for the header looked fair, too – and that left Liverpool fans and players baffled as to why the strike was chalked off.
If hearts were fluttering and stomachs churning with derby nerves before the match, the teamsheet did nothing to remedy either.
Not only, as expected, was Pepe Reina not deemed fit enough to replace Brad Jones in goal, but Glen Johnson was absent from the starting line-up, too.
Liverpool’s best player this season, he looked certain to be missed. So it proved. Jose Enrique has made a fine art of comedy defending after a good start to his Anfield career. Unfortunately, he was at the Laurel and Hardys again in the first half.
A glance down the 11 also set the mind turning – was a team containing Suso, Sterling and Wisdom really ready for a frantic Goodison derby? And Sahin, new to the English game – how would he find the unique pressure of this clash?
Fans also feared a hangover from picking such a strong side for the Europa League game on Thursday although, as it was, there was little evidence of that.
Before kick-off, as tension mounted, two banners were unfurled in the corner of the ground housing the Liverpool support.
Alongside a taunting red banner simply stating “17 years” flew a far more important message “Solidarity has no colours” – deserved recognition for Everton’s support over Hillsborough.
To the game – and Everton were out the traps the quickest, forcing a corner just seconds into Brendan Rodgers’ first taste of the derby.
That particular flag kick came to nothing – but Everton corners proved a constant heart-stopper for Liverpool fans throughout.
Just two minutes in though, a cooler head and a quicker pass from Enrique could have put Sterling in on goal, but the Spanish defender displayed neither and the opportunity passed by.
If Enrique was proving a predictable concern early on so too was Sahin. He looked hesitant in attacking positions and a cross into the stand while under little pressure showed up his nerves.
At least Jones had started well in goal, and he was out quickly to smother when Nikica Jelavic threatened to latch on to a through ball.
Jones had to be alert minutes later when another Enrique moment – this time a poor backpass – forced the keeper to race from his line and slide to clear to the stands.
That sparked a period of pressure from Everton with the impressive Kevin Mirallas a constant threat and Jones beginning to look nervous in the Liverpool goal.
But just as Everton turned up the heat, Liverpool broke away to open the scoring. Minutes earlier, Suarez had been on the end of a chorus of boos and, perhaps buoyed by that, he was in the right place to force the goal.
Suso had raced away down the left and looked to have been caught with a late tackle. But the referee allowed play to go on and the overlapping Enrique squared.
As Sterling and Baines clashed in the box, the ball fell to Suarez and his powerful cross shot cannoned off a helpless Baines leaving Howard stranded in the Everton goal and Liverpool fans celebrating an unlikely lead.
Controversy is never far from Suarez and most thought he would somehow write his name into the newspaper reports of this game. And so he did, when he sprinted to the halfway line to perform a mock dive in front of David Moyes and the Everton bench.
It was up there with Robbie Fowler’s line-sniffing in terms of cheek and it would seem proof, if needed, that Suarez does pay attention to what is said about him.
The celebration sparked the predictable mock outrage in the wooden stands of Goodison, but David Moyes had the good grace to see the funny side after the game.
“I would have done the same if we had scored a third,” he told reporters. Brendan Rodgers described it as “Scouse wit” with tongue firmly in cheek.
Just six minutes later, Liverpool were two up when Suarez glanced a free-kick past Tim Howard to silence three corners of Goodison.
In all honesty, this was beyond how even the most optimistic Liverpool fan had dreamed it last night.
An Everton fightback was inevitable. This was, after all, a Moyes side enjoying its best start to a Premier League campaign and offering more attacking threat than has been in evidence on the wrong side of Stanley Park for many years.
Marouane Fellaini and Mirallas were both giving a nervy defence the jitters, and it was the huge-haired Belgian’s influence that led to Everton pulling a goal back.
After the ringer for Screech from Saved By The Bell had a shot blocked by Enrique, the corner was only punched to the edge of the box by Jones and Leon Osman volleyed past the stranded goalie to make it 2-1.
Jones looked a bag of nerves now and was fortunate to have a free kick awarded in his favour when he dropped the ball minutes after the goal.
At the other end, Suarez was Liverpool’s only real outlet and from a throw he shot narrowly wide from the edge of the area.
Sterling has been Liverpool’s secondary attacking weapon in recent weeks, but the teenager looked just that in this game and struggled defensively to contain the attack-minded Leighton Baines.
He was booked for consistent fouling and was perhaps fortunate to stay on the pitch before Rodgers wisely switched him to the opposite flank with Suso – who was also quiet – given the task of trying to contain Baines.
Wisdom, too, struggled – making it a trio of teenagers who were tested to the limit by Everton.
It’s been easy to get carried away with the positives of all three this season – but there will be many more days like today to endure before they are consistent performers on the Premier League stage.
It was the Leeds-born defender who dallied to let in Fellaini just before the half-hour mark but that time the frizz-haired giant failed to make the most of his opportunity.
And it was again poor defending down Wisdom’s side that allowed Fellaini to break free and square for Steven Naismith to tap in Everton’s equaliser, although Enrique will also have to look himself in the mirror – something he clearly enjoys – as he failed to track the Scot’s run.
Liverpool offered little in the remainder of the first half – a Gerrard shot well over the bar their only effort of note. But if the Liverpool fans were getting bored then at least they had Phil Neville to laugh at.
There’s often hilarity to be had from his general play but this time it was a comedy dive followed by a booking for simulation that had the travelling Kop in stitches, especially after Moyes’ moral crusade in the media regarding Suarez.
Rodgers replaced the ineffective Sahin and the overwhelmed Suso for Coates and Shelvey at the start of the second half and the Reds looked much more solid as a consequence.
Just a few minutes in, Sterling had a golden chance to put the Reds back in front when he was released by Enrique’s ball only to get his chip all wrong and then face the wrath of Suarez for not squaring the ball.
At the other end, Jelavic tested Jones with a shot at the near post that the keeper should have perhaps held while Gerrard cheekily tried to beat Howard with a 40-yard free kick that the American was more than equal to.
The sides were cancelling each other out much more in the second half and clear chances were as hard to spot as a coach that didn’t originate from North Wales. Jelavic was inches away from connecting with a Coleman cross while the striker will also rue a free header which he nodded wide after losing Skrtel in the box.
It wasn’t until the last 10 minutes that Liverpool looked like winning it. First Gerrard had a shot blocked before Suarez’s trickery almost saw him on the scoresheet again only for Jagielka to block.
And then came the moment that will now be making every Blue smile and every Red grimace – the disallowed goal that should have been.
Ah well, suppose it makes a change that it’s the Red half of Merseyside that is propagating a referee conspiracy story for once…
LIVERPOOL: Jones, Enrique, Sahin (Coates 46), Agger, Suarez, Gerrard (c), Allen, Suso (Shelvey 46), Sterling, Skrtel, Wisdom (Henderson 70). Subs (not used): Reina, Assaidi, Downing, Carragher.