As acts of vindication go, Jordan Pickford’s game-saving block to deny Mohamed Salah as the prolific Liverpool forward looked poised to open the scoring in the first half of a tense Merseyside derby was up there with the best of the Premier League this season.
It may also be a save, and display, that will have a major say in the destiny of the 2019 title. Now a point behind Pep Guardiola’s defending champions, it is the first time in three months that Jurgen Klopp’s side is not above Man City having completed the same number of games.
The statistics can provide a simple explanation behind that downturn in Liverpool’s fortunes, four draws in their last six league games having left eight points on the table and allowed City, floundering apparently around Christmas and the turn of the year, to grind their way back to the top.
If a member of Liverpool royalty such as Graeme Souness talks after the game of worrying for his beloved former club and of the nerves that seem to be creeping into his successors in red, then, surely, there is now major cause for concern in the Kop empire.
“It’s all good,” claimed Klopp afterwards. “We just have to show stability, fight for the results. Nothing happened really, except we have one more point than we did so that’s still positive.
“It was clear that could happen, that City could go top, I don’t think we have to think about that. We didn’t think about City when they were just behind us and now we are just behind them, though not too far.
They have to win; we have to win; let’s see how we end up.
But however convincing, or otherwise, Klopp’s glass-half-full attitude may be, this was undoubtedly a case of two points dropped for Liverpool against a team that was easily beaten by City at Goodison at the start of last month. The turning point came, arguably, as early as the 28th minute when Morgan Schneiderlin’s error in midfield allowed Fabinho to play a first-time through-ball which sent Salah bearing down on goal with only Pickford to beat.
But the England goalkeeper did well to spread himself and beat away Salah’s shot, before team-mate Seamus Coleman did likewise, flinging himself in the way of a follow-up shot from Jordan Henderson.
It was a defiant message from Pickford, whose season was derailed, along with his club’s, in the corresponding fixture at Anfield in December when the keeper’s last-minute blunder gifted a winner to Liverpool.
Thereafter, Klopp’s side seemed to grow from strength to strength while Everton imploded, setting off on a run that raised serious question marks over the long-term future of manager Marco Silva.
But for Pickford, at least, this was evidence that that particular personal nightmare is behind him and a number of team-mates followed suit in an impressive display of defending against Liverpool’s much-vaunted front three.
Centre-half Michael Keane, for example, made one of the best tackles you will see in this, or any other, season, sliding in to block Salah just six yards from goal as the striker appeared poised to convert a through ball from Trent Alexander-Arnold that had been diverted into his path via Kurt Zouma. There was also a marvellous opening for Fabinho, from a Virgil van Dijk set-piece header, only for the Brazilian midfielder to mis-control the ball six yards out, a poor touch that allowed Lucas Digne to make another impressive interception.
His words might have suggested otherwise but, when wasted half-chances for van Dijk, Joel Matip and Sadio Mané were factored in, Klopp would be excused for harbouring concerns about the way that his ‘Big Three’ forward line is responding to the current challenge.
Admittedly, he only had Salah, Mané and Roberto Firmino on the field for the final half-hour after Klopp brought on the Brazilian, newly recovered from his recent ankle injury, as a substitute in a bid to change the match.
Early signs were promising, especially on the counter-attack, with Firmino leading the charge on a couple of attacks, one of which ended with him exchanging tidy passes with Salah and swinging over a cross which was fractionally too far for Mané, who could only head back across goal.
But the longer it went on, the more Everton began to believe in themselves as well, especially when Silva threw on Brazilian forward Richarlison, whose poor recent form had seen him relegated to the bench.
He might have set up a winner for countryman Bernard, driving over a right-wing cross which the winger narrowly missed as he slid in, during the best of a few spells of late Everton pressure that might have made this an even more costly afternoon for Klopp.
As it was, the German and his team lived to fight another day in a title race that, surely, has numerous twists and turns still to come.
“I hope it has at least one,” deadpanned the Liverpool manager.
Pickford 7; Coleman 6, Zouma 7, Keane 8, Digne 7; Gueye 7, Schneiderlin 6 (Gomes 76, 6); Walcott 6 (Richarlison 59, 6), Sigurdsson 6, Bernard 7; Calvert-Lewin 6 (Tosun 74, 6). Subs: Stekelenburg, Jagielka, Davies, Kenny.
Alisson 6; Alexander-Arnold 6, Matip 8, Van Dijk 7, Robertson 7; Wijnaldum 6 (Milner 62, 6), Henderson 7, Fabinho 6; Salah 5, Mane 5 (Lallana 84), Origi 5 (Firmino 62, 7). Subs: Mignolet, Keita, Sturridge, Lallana, Shaqiri.
Martin Atkinson 7