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Liverpool draws at Everton, a momentary pause before its party
BY now, everyone at Liverpool Football Club has grown used to waiting.
Manager Jürgen Klopp and his team have been waiting since March to play again, to pick up where they left off. Their fans have been waiting since Jan 19 - the day Liverpool edged Manchester United, a result that made the club feel it could afford to tempt fate - for the clock to run down, the games to run out.
There might, in the right context, be a pleasure hidden in that purgatory: the thrill of anticipation, a success to savour, a chance to bask.
Not, though, for Liverpool. Liverpool has waited for 30 years to be here, to be top and to be clear, inching toward the podium, preparing to reclaim the perch. It has grown tired of waiting.
But wait it must. Liverpool was the last of the Premier League's teams to take to the field after English football's restart last week, the story arc that has provided the central thrust of the season understandably given pride of place.
The Merseyside derby on Monday morning was dressed up as the start of the coronation procession: Beat Everton away, and then defeat Crystal Palace at home on Wednesday, and the crown is theirs.
It did not, of course, work out that way. Meetings between Merseyside's great foes, particularly on Everton territory, are always intense, attritional affairs.
This is, after all, the Premier League's most ill-disciplined fixture: They might as well put the number of red cards shown over the years on the promotional material.
Even without fans in the stadium, even without Goodison Park baying and snarling at the unwelcome intruders in red, Everton made unlikely pageboys.
There is an air of experiment about football's new reality: an unwanted chance, of course, but a chance nonetheless to interrogate our assumptions and scrutinise our beliefs, to examine the game in a controlled environment, to try to understand a little better how it works.
The discovery, not yet clinically trialed, from Goodison Park might be: No matter where the players were born, no matter from how far afield they are drawn, a derby is not just the animosity in the stands; it is the fire and fury on the field.
You can hear it, clearly, in the pin-drop quiet of an empty stadium: Jordan Henderson screaming, maniacally, to trigger a press; Michael Keane, polite but firm, commanding his Everton teammates by using their full names ("Seamus Coleman"); Virgil van Dijk directing where passes should be played, running the game as if he had a remote control.
There was no shortage of commitment, no dearth of desire, because of the silence.
Although the scoreless draw the teams played was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a particularly attractive game, that served - in a sense - to make it feel more authentic.
This, it turns out, is what Merseyside derbies are like: tense, hard fought and gritty, whether there is anyone in the stadium to watch or not.
The fans add to that, of course, but they are not necessarily the root of it. Liverpool had more poise, for much of the game, but Everton did not lack menace. Late on, the hosts missed the only really clear-cut chance of the game, a post denying Carlo Ancelotti's team victory.
All of which means, of course, that Liverpool may not win the championship it has waited three decades to claim in three days' time, at home against Crystal Palace.
It could still win it this week - if Manchester City drops points in its games against Burnley or, more likely, Chelsea - but it could also have to wait awhile longer yet: 10 days, two weeks, even.
Given the circumstances, Liverpool will tolerate the delay. The last three months have, though the club has done its best not to broadcast it, been anxious ones.
In those endless Zoom meetings, the ones in which the fate of this season's Premier League was weighed, Liverpool retained a studious silence.
As executives from other clubs pitched ideas of neutral venues and points-per-game solutions and, occasionally, an ending that became known as null and void, Liverpool's representatives adopted what was described, by one person present, as a Sphinx-like calm.
In private, though, Liverpool was churning. Last week, Klopp admitted, finally, that he had been worried when the prospect of a cancelled season glimmered - admittedly briefly - before him. Van Dijk, too, found that having a lot of time to read was not always the benefit he had presumed it would be.
For a while, at least, Liverpool - a team that has been possessed of such agency all season, that has never not been top of the Premier League, that has been proceeding unimpeded toward its title for nearly a year now - found itself powerless, unable to control the outcome, at the mercy of a force majeure.
All it wanted, then, was the chance to wait, to not see all its work stripped away at the last step, to be given the opportunity to play out the season on the field.
There is no delusion that it will feel quite as it should: No matter when the finish line is crossed, it will not have that single euphoric moment, a day when this team, which seems to enjoy such a curious symbiosis with its supporters, is able to share the final act with them.
Klopp has promised a celebration when the health risk allows, but it will not be the same. There are Liverpool fans who have spent a lifetime planning and praying for this moment who will have to experience it from afar, a socially distanced dream.
That cannot be changed. Nor, as Klopp has said, repeatedly, given all the ways the world has changed since Liverpool last played a football game, is it any great sacrifice. What matters to Liverpool is that there will be a final act, whenever it comes.
It is used to waiting, and it is tired of waiting, but for now that is all it can do: to watch the clock tick down and the games go by, the target drifting ever closer.
They need five more points from eight games. Liverpool's fingers are brushing the trophy, touching the perch. It has waited this long. It can wait a little longer. NYTIMES