By Liam Twomey
The last time Liverpool produced a performance of such breathtaking incision, pace and ruthlessness to destroy Tottenham 5-0 at White Hart Lane in December, Andre Villas-Boas was swiftly relieved of his duties the following morning. One suspects Roberto Martinez will avoid a similar fate, but the affable Spaniard will take little solace in the fact as he contemplates Tuesday’s humiliation at Anfield.
None of the pre-match signs suggested Liverpool’s biggest Merseyside derby victory since 1982 was likely. Everton had lost just twice in the Premier League this season – an obligatory defeat to Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium in October and a freakish home loss to Sunderland on Boxing Day – and were unbeaten in six. The last time they had conceded four goals in a match in April 2012, David Moyes scuppered Sir Alex Ferguson's title hopes by snatching a famous 4-4 draw at Old Trafford.
Brendan Rodgers’ men were also in good form but playing catch-up after successive festive defeats to City and Chelsea had seen them slip from the top of the Premier League, and the failure to sign Basel winger Mohamed Salah – coupled with Manchester United’s £37.1 million capture of Juan Mata – had raised doubts over their ability to sustain a top four charge.
On this evidence, however, it will take more than Chelsea’s two-time player of year to keep Moyes in the Champions League next season.
In derby matches, fierce and scrappy as they usually are, set pieces can often prove crucial. All three of Liverpool’s goals at Goodison Park in November came from dead ball situations and Martinez will surely be bitterly disappointed that Steven Gerrard was allowed to rise unmarked to head home Luis Suarez’s delivery from the left on 21 minutes.
He now has eight goals in Merseyside derbies in the Premier League era, two more than Robbie Fowler. No one in red has punished Everton more regularly.
With Liverpool in front, the buzzing quartet of Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho were always likely to find the space to shine, and so it proved.
Sturridge twice raced in behind to beat Tim Howard before the break, his second goal a stunning combination of timing, body coordination and flawless technique. Suarez’s peerless form this season allowed Rodgers to give his other star striker time to heal properly from the ankle injury he picked up in November, and he has scored five goals in four matches since his return.
It should have been six and would have been, had the 24-year-old not provided further evidence to suggest that penalty shootout heartache awaits England once again in Brazil this summer. His reaction to the miss was to lapse into the selfish, self-defeating habits which undermined his efforts at Chelsea, and Rodgers wisely withdrew him on 72 minutes.
In between Suarez found the net again – his 23rd goal in just 21 appearances since returning from suspension. The Uruguayan shows no sign of abandoning the form which has established him as the most dangerous striker on the planet this season, but what will please Rodgers most is that the likes of Sturridge, Coutinho and Sterling remain just as inspired.
It was inevitably a sobering night for Martinez, and one which necessarily casts Everton's top four charge in a significantly less flattering light.
It is increasingly obvious that, for all their qualities, the Toffees lack the depth of their rivals in almost every position. Antolin Alcaraz conjured memories of his worst Wigan excesses in the absence of Sylvain Distin, while the withdrawal of Romelu Lukaku through injury on 25 minutes deprived the visitors of almost any attacking threat, even if the Belgian has scored just once in his last 10 games. Much now rests on the adaptation of giant Ivorian Lacina Traore.
For Rodgers though, there is plenty of cause for optimism. Liverpool are perfectly placed to break back into the Champions League – the minimum required to keep Suarez – but they can realistically aim even higher. Only six points separate them from Premier League leaders Arsenal and with the Gunners, Tottenham, City and Chelsea still to come to Anfield, a title tilt is anything but out of the question.