Liverpool won a third successive game by a 2-1 margin, beating Everton at Anfield to progress to the Fourth Round of the FA Cup.
Virgil van Dijk, making his debut, secured the victory late on with a header past the stranded Jordan Pickford, powering a header into the Kop End goal to make it the perfect start.
Last season, at the equivalent stage of the competition, Liverpool, who are currently 13/1 at 888sport to win the champions league were captained by Jose Enrique, and put out their youngest ever starting line-up, resulting in a goalless draw with League Two side Plymouth Argyle.
This time around, with city rivals Everton coming to Anfield, no such gamble was afforded, as the strongest possible team was on show.
Injured duo Mo Salah, fresh from being crowned the best player in Africa, and Philippe Coutinho, who is edging closer to a move to Barcelona, were missing, but Adam Lallana played for the second successive game after coming back from injury, and Sadio Mané raced back from Ghana unscathed.
Mané’s performance was by no means stellar, but he deserves praise for the commitment of playing after such a long trip.
This was not the Everton side that arrived at Anfield in December with intentions of only shutting up shop; the Sam Allardyce bus had been left a mile away at Goodison Park on this occasion.
After only five minutes, the visitors had showed more attacking prowess than they had in the whole of the league game, with Yannick Bolasie a key outlet.
The winger, playing against Andy Robertson on the right-hand side of Everton’s midfield, was clearly instructed to go at his man at every opportunity.
It was a clear game plan to give him the ball at the earliest possible moment, but Robertson and Van Dijk coped, with James Milner coming across as fast as he could to double up when necessary.
The early joy that Bolasie yielded petered out fairly quickly, with Robertson in particular impressing with his tenacious work to close him down. The Scot produced his best Liverpool performance, and at £8 million looks a snip.
As with any derby game, the opening exchanges were tetchy, and littered with fouls.
Wayne Rooney was booked for a poor challenge early on, and was later taken off before he could be sent off, whilst James McCarthy was riled from the start.
Mané began to exert some pressure on the Everton backline, getting on the ball more and more almost halfway through the first period, but to no avail.
Lallana looked rusty, and Firmino isolated, whilst Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was struggling to make a pass.
All it took was a quickening of the play, with passes exchanged, before Lallana made his way into the penalty area, only to go down after feeling contact from Mason Holgate.
The Everton defender protested, and it looked soft, but Bobby Madley pointed to the spot. James Milner expertly converted to give Liverpool the lead.
Replays showed it was a harsh one to concede, but since Dejan Lovren was penalised in December for a similarly limited contact, then this levels it up.
Liverpool will be ball Number 4️⃣ in Monday evening's FA Cup fourth-round draw. 7.10pm GMT. (@LFC)
— Anfield HQ (@AnfieldHQ) January 6, 2018
For Sam Allardyce to question the penalty is ludicrous: “You can’t put your hands on someone in the box; it’s a penalty”, he said of the Lovren incident. On the Holgate foul, he claimed the referee “made a mistake”.
Both were identical. Neither should have been awarded, but it is a kind of justice in the end that both were.
But that was not the only drama that would unfold before half-time, with Holgate central once again.
With 40 or so minutes on the clock, and the ball going out for a throw-in, shielded by Firmino, Holgate gave the Brazilian an unnecessary and ugly shove, sending him hurtling towards the Main Stand and over the advertising boards.
Firmino was clearly angered by Holgate’s push – understandably so – and angrily made a charge towards him. It is not clear yet what exactly was said but an FA investigation will ensue.
What is abundantly apparent is that Holgate should have seen red for the act of violent conduct; that neither referee Madley nor fourth official Jon Moss thought it even worthy of a booking, even after a lengthy period of time to think and discuss it, gets more baffling the more you think about it.After the game had ignited, Madley was glad just to make it to half-time.
A goal down, Everton had to respond after the interval. Rooney was hooked after coming close to being shown a second yellow, with his replacement, Ademola Lookman, a game-changer.
It was the England youth international’s introduction that saw the Blues inject fresh life in the cup tie. They needed a goal.
Joe Gomez, who was outstanding for the most part on the night, should have made it 2-0 when he had a free header no more than eight yards from goal, but he could only screw it wide.
Lallana then broke away and scuffed a shot slowly wide under pressure; it was not to be his night, but was a vital game under his belt as he looks to return to being 100% again.
Robertson ran at Bolasie, in somewhat of a role-reversal, beating him inside the penalty area, before his well-struck effort was saved by Pickford, and then McCarthy finally saw yellow for a foul on Milner.
That, though, was the end of Liverpool’s control on the game, as Everton fired themselves up for a period of attack.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin headed over with Loris Karius stranded, but it was not long until Everton levelled.
67: Goal for #EFC. Sigurdsson.
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) January 5, 2018
Generally against the run of play, and on the counter-attack, Lookman found Phil Jagielka, who then teed up Gylfi Sigurdsson, who passed the ball into the corner of the Anfield Road goal.
Karius could do nothing but watch on with the Everton fans behind him as it rolled over the line.
Gini Wijnaldum replaced Lallana as Jurgen Klopp looked to force a winner, with neither side wanting a replay.
The Dutch midfielder was a new pair of legs on the field, and found himself central to a couple of Liverpool attacks with some incisive passing and energy, but it was his international teammate who would ultimately steal the show.
Van Dijk was assured at all times with the ball, producing a display worthy of his hefty price-tag, which will soon be forgotten if he continues to play like this.
Liverpool needed an Alan Hansen or Mark Lawrenson figure in their defence and they appear to have found one, although a better sweeper keeper is a must for the full fruition to be seen.
On too many occasions, Van Dijk wanted Karius to come out of his goal and tidy up, but the German was reluctant. Simon Mignolet will be even more so; he is never one to be proactive.
The German did nothing to suggest he should be in the team more often, with rumoured interest in Roma’s Brazilian goalkeeper Alisson vindicated, not least on this evidence.
The main talking point come the end of tie, though, was Van Dijk’s winner, in front of the Kop, and just minutes from time.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross from a corner kick was pinpoint, unlike the majority of his passes from open play on the night, and the centre-back headed home.
Minds, for once this January, were able to move away from the Coutinho saga.
“Why wouldn’t you want to play here?”, Van Dijk asked Southampton teammates visiting Anfield in November; perhaps he could ask Coutinho the same question.
Had Simon Mignolet or Loris Karius produced the same goalkeeping error that Jordan Pickford did, the fallout would have been enormous, as the England stopper was caught in no-man’s-land.
But take nothing away from the cross, or the fairytale ending. Against Burnley, it was Dejan Lovren assisting Ragnar Klavan to become the hero; this time it was Van Dijk, with defensive partner Joel Matip in close proximity.
It is now 16 derby games unbeaten for Liverpool, a club record, and the Reds have a new hero.
The FA Cup is Liverpool’s best chance of a trophy, and failure to progress to Round Four was not an option.
The first instalment of the £75 million Liverpool will pay Southampton for Van Dijk has already been justified. The fairytale ending was secured.