The Premier League is a self-financing hegemony; did we really expect Everton to sustain their Champions League challenge?
March 30, 2008 6:26 PM
For another year the Premier League's phoney war, or phoney drama, is over. Liverpool's run of five straight wins in February and March had hinted at a decisive yanking up of the rope-ladder that separates the current top four clubs from the below-stairs pretenders; the 1-0 defeat of Everton at Anfield this afternoon pretty much seals it. Liverpool are now five points clear and can look forward to the potentially season-defining Champions League quarter-final with Arsenal with a sense of having taken care of business.
It's hard to feel particularly surprised by any of this. The pretence that a club from outside the established big four has a realistic chance of barging its way under the velvet rope and into the Champions League VIP area is part of the habitual Premier League hoopla of recent years. Everton have had an excellent season until injuries and a dropping-off of form for a few key players contributed to a stodgy recent run. David Moyes is clearly a fine manager, who has built his team carefully and incrementally. In the Premier League, however, this simply isn't enough.
It's a budgetary thing. Fernando Torres, scorer of the decisive goal today, now has 21 Premier League goals (19 of them at Anfield). For the opening half hour he was irrepressible: constantly menacing in his movement, strong in possession, a centre forward dictating the pace of the game. It's tempting to draw a comparison with Everton's Yakubu Ayegbeni, also a record-signing centre forward in his first season. Twisting and turning like a budget Torres, the Nigerian did occasionally lure Sami Hyppia out of his comfort zone in the middle; twice he won free-kicks. Yakubu cost £11.25m, slightly less than Liverpool could afford to splurge on a hunch on Ryan Babel. Sometimes the market tells you all you need to know: £26m gets you Torres and a Champions League spot.
Blue riband Uefa competitions aside, this was also a Merseyside derby. And at least there was something reassuringly traditional in the fretful nature of much of the football. These games rarely provide much free-flowing entertainment. On this occasion there was a general absence of drama too. The physical contest was strangely muted. The first really heavy tackle came as late as the 56th minute, when Lee Carsley was booked for a mistimed lunge. Unable to dictate the tempo, Everton were out-muscled and out-passed by a Liverpool midfield in which Gerrard and Lucas were steady. Liverpool simply did enough.
Often on these occasions an early goal can provide impetus, forcing the visiting team to attack more readily than they might. Not so today. Everton did have spells of possession in the Liverpool half, but displayed the bluntest of cutting edges: they failed to create a chance of any note until a 66th-minute free-kick. This is hardly surprising: for this game their attacking options were severely limited. The squad is light for a team challenging for a Champions League spot. With injures to Andrew Johnson, Tim Cahill and Victor Anichebe, Everton's attack was emasculated. How frustrating for Moyes that Torres' early goal should come from a mistake by his own player. Yakubu dithered on the edge of the Everton box and was robbed; three touches later Liverpool had scored, Torres shooting low and powerfully past Howard.
Even more frustrating, Everton would have come here nursing hopes that a point could keep alive their hopes of taking it down to the last knockings. Liverpool's last six games looked less than straightforward: they play away four times, at Arsenal, Spurs, Fulham and Birmingham. Points will probably be dropped; but not enough, not now.
As the game wore on, Moyes appeared on the touchline in his funereal suit, gesturing towards his players in increasingly desperate fashion. There were moments of scrambled excitement in the Liverpool box. Yakubu had a couple of half chances, one of which ended with a laughable dive. But Everton never looked like drawing - never mind winning - this game, just as all season they never really looked like finishing in fourth place in May.
This is not to disparage their efforts. The Champions League, as we've seen in four of the last five Premier League seasons (including this one) has become a self-financing hegemony. It's a problem not just for Everton, but for anyone with an interest in the top tier of English football. March seems a little early for these kind of questions to be settled. Budgetary inequities, leagues-within-leagues: the Premier League has the resources - financial and tribal - to survive these kind of things. Can it really cope with becoming boring?
what's this? A sympathety articles for the below Big Four?