Of all the opponents, it had to be Everton heading up the Anfield Road for Kenny Dalglish's emotional and resonant return to the Anfield dugout for the fixture which ultimately drove him out of that seat 20 years ago.
And of all the absent players, it had to be Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, neither of whom have missed the fixture since the 1-1 draw in February 2002, 19 matches back.
But Dalglish, the sight of whose pale, haunted face will never be forgotten by those who witnessed his valedictory press conference two days after the 4-4 draw against Everton in February 1991, insisted last night that Carragher, injured, and Gerrard, suspended, were "not important" to him in this hour.
He called instead on those who probably know they will never enter Anfield lore to deliver for him when he needs them most. "[Gerrard and Carragher] are two big players but they're not important players for us this weekend. The important ones for us are the ones who are available and from within that we've got to get leadership," Dalglish said. "It's not any one person who will be designated as being a leader. They are all leaders. They all have got their own responsibilities and they can't shy away from them, I don't think that they will and I don't think they have done."
This was the King calling for a spirit of collectivism and if that sounds incongruous then it is no less so than Dalglish's insistence that all is well at Anfield and that two qualities entirely extraneous to football – confidence and luck – will see his side through. Even the immediate adrenalin rush of a 1-0 midweek lead at Blackpool, three minutes into Dalglish's first true fixture in charge, was not enough to stir Liverpool from their slumber and the suspicion is that they look most vulnerable in the places Carragher and Gerrard occupy. The truth is that few of those players inherited by Dalglish, a rag-tag band spanning three managers now, currently look like leaders.
Dalglish acknowledged for the first time yesterday that the level of scrutiny has changed. "If we had a press conference when I was working [here last time] there were maybe two people with microphones. The size of the club has changed and the demands on the manager in different areas is different from when I was manager before," he admitted.
At least recent history is on his side – Everton have not won at Anfield since Kevin Campbell helped take the points in September 1999 and have scored only three times in eight visits. Amid all the talk of what it will take to revive Liverpool, who are four points off the relegation places, with two wins in 10, Dalglish rightly observed that Everton – two wins in 11 league matches – have hardly been in the full flush of form either. Beyond the blood, thunder and the story of a Messianic return, this is a desultory bottom-half clash.
David Moyes' preparations were complicated yesterday by the tortuous attempts to move on Steven Pienaar for a badly needed £3m before he falls out of contract this summer. Pienaar wanted Tottenham's £70,000-a-week wages though Everton didn't appreciate the low cash bid. Chelsea offered £3m though the £50,000-a-week was less attractive to the player and wrangles over agent fees have seemingly scuppered that deal, too. Pienaar appears to be staying put. The money from that deal would at least have enabled Everton to pay the £1m fee Monaco require for the release of Congolese striker Dieumerci Mbokani on loan.
Liverpool paid out Pienaar's current value just for the six months of Roy Hodgson services and it is that financial gulf which, in a derby unprecedented in years for the anguish which precedes it, always frustrates Moyes. "If anything gnaws away at me, then it's not the record, but the financial gap. When you don't win at places like Anfield then you are questioned on it, and no one considers the financial gap, and that's the bit that gnaws away at me. With what we've done here, how many years have we been in Europe and competed in the top half of the league, maybe that's as good as Everton can do on the financial resources Everton have got."
Moyes said he would feel more anxious if Dalglish were playing, rather than managing tomorrow – "I remember him as a young Celtic player and I watched him a lot playing for Scotland; the big thing is that I don't want Kenny to play" – while Dalglish coincidentally joked that him pulling on the old No 7 jersey would be seriously detrimental. Yet, for all the talk of collectivism, it is the Dalglish factor alone which can help this fixture ride above the narrative of struggle and blandness of three goalless draws in the last eight league clashes between the combatants. "I think my presence can only help [the players] in that the punters are coming in. If they are thinking me coming back is a positive thing that that will reflect well for the players," Dalglish said. "They know what they've got to do, they know how they've got to play and they know they'd love to win the game."
Dalglish's Derby Memories: Mixed encounters with Everton
As a manager
20 February 1991: Everton 4-4 Liverpool (FA Cup)
Kenny Dalglish quit the day after this remarkable match as champions Liverpool let the lead slip four times in an FA Cup fifth round replay at Goodison Park. Following a goalless draw at Anfield three days earlier, the teams again could not be separated. Peter Beardsley and Graeme Sharp traded a pair of goals each before Ian Rush looked to have put Liverpool into the last eight, only for Tony Cottee's last-minute leveller to make it 3-3 and send the tie into extra time. A fine John Barnes strike made it 4-3 before Cottee again pulled the Toffees level to take the tie to a second replay. Everton won 1-0 before going out to West Ham in the next round.
20 March 1988: Everton 1-0 Liverpool (League)
Liverpool would have set a new record for unbeaten starts to a First Division season if they had escaped unscathed from Goodison but Wayne Clarke's goal ended their 29-match run without a defeat. It was a rare setback for the side of Barnes, Beardsley, Houghton and Aldridge as they went on to win the league by nine points and give Dalglish the second of his three titles as player-manager.
As a player
21 September 1985: Everton 2-3 Liverpool (League)
New player-manager Dalglish stunned Howard Kendall's reigning champions at Goodison after just 20 seconds to fire Liverpool into an early lead. Dalglish's sweetly-struck right-footed shot beat Everton goalkeeper Neville Southall to set his side on the way to victory and put them on course for the First Division title.
13 March 1979: Liverpool 1-1 Everton (League)
Dalglish scored his first Mersyside derby goal in his 100th appearance for the club as the spoils were shared at Anfield. This was the first of the Scots five derby goals as Liverpool remained two points clear of Gordon Lee's Everton side at the top of the First Division with three games in hand. They went on to win the league, giving Dalglish the first of his six titles as a player.
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