Football: Goodison pressure on Royle

Guy Hodgson looks forward to the best of today's Premiership programme
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The Independent Online
By any criteria, Liverpool have had a ropey week. Knocked out of the FA Cup by Chelsea after leading 2-0 on Sunday, humiliated in a six-a-side tournament in Amsterdam and then overtaken by Manchester United, of all teams, at the top of the Premiership.

But, as your mother used to say, there are always people worse off than yourself, and Liverpool supporters do not have to search too far to find someone. Compared to what has been going on at Everton, the last few days have been outstanding at Anfield.

A sense of angry gloom has hung over Goodison Park, the legacy of losing to Bradford City in the FA Cup and their sixth successive Premiership defeat in Newcastle. In addition, their best player, Andrei Kanchelskis, has been sold to Fiorentina while rumours have circulated that their record pounds 6m signing, Nick Barmby, was about to leave.

Barmby has denied that, despite being dropped for the game at Newcastle, and he ingratiated himself further on the eve of today's match with Nottingham Forest in Joe Royle's eyes by making a spirited defence of his manager. "Of course he is still the right man for the job," he said. "I can't believe everyone is calling for his head. It's important to maintain stability.

"Since he's been here, he's won the FA Cup and taken us from the bottom of the league to the top half. They would be happy with that at Tottenham and Middlesbrough."

Nevertheless, the ominous words "Royle out" were daubed on the walls of Everton's training ground this week and it is unlikely anyone will add "standing" to the message if they lose today and create a club record for successive League defeats.

The current Liverpool team have had a number of chances to grasp at greatness and missed them and there will be suspicions of a trend if they fail at Derby today. A letter in the Liverpool Echo last night summed up feelings on Merseyside. "The likes of McManaman, Fowler, Collymore and Berger should," it read, "make us a side feared in Europe. This, though, is not the case."

The author could not divine why, although this critic believes lack of backbone and discipline might be the answer. Certainly Derby's Jim Smith echoed more than one Premiership manager when he said yesterday: "Last Sunday's game showed that if you get among them and don't allow them to play, Liverpool find it difficult."

No one has found playing Southampton more difficult recently than Manchester United, who lost 3-1 in April and 6-3 in November. In some managers that might have encouraged ambitions of retribution at Old Trafford today, although Alex Ferguson has loftier sights. "I don't care if it's 1-0 or 13-12 as long as we win," he said. "Revenge won't come into it."

Top of the table again, Ferguson believes that spring and his team's best form might be coinciding again. "You look at the chances we made against Wimbledon on Wednesday and you think someone is going to suffer. One day we'll get a barrel-load." Southampton, fresh from an ignominious defeat by Stockport in the Coca-Cola Cup, were praying last night it will not be them.

West Ham have been on their knees for most of the winter after one win in 16 matches and their manager, Harry Redknapp, is suffering the same doubts that have surrounded Joe Royle's future. On Wednesday, supporters barricaded the team into Upton Park after losing to Arsenal but an away game at Blackburn will not come as a relief.

"If I had my way we would play all our games at home," Slaven Bilic, their Croatian central defender, said, "because the fans have been tremendous. Hopefully they will be there to help us get the result we need." Given Blackburn's current home form - last defeat on 22 October - that is unlikely.

Ruud Gullit tried a dose of player power this week, letting his Chelsea players choose their own style for the London derby at Tottenham. Gullit staged practice games with different tactics and then asked his stars which way they wanted to play.

"They all had the same solution," said Gullit, happy with their choice. "I thought they would want to play that way. You know what is in your own mind but you have to give players responsibility."

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