Finnan fights the Anfield fear factor

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The Independent Online

As any Scouser worth his curly wig always has a spring in his step and a song in his heart regardless of mood, it has been difficult to tell the Red from the Toffee on Merseyside these past few days. But if you looked very closely, there has been something that has given the Liverpool faithful away - their eyes.

As any Scouser worth his curly wig always has a spring in his step and a song in his heart regardless of mood, it has been difficult to tell the Red from the Toffee on Merseyside these past few days. But if you looked very closely, there has been something that has given the Liverpool faithful away - their eyes.

Yes, the eyes have had it all right. Panic, sheer panic. Panic that their neighbours are about to do the double over them for the first time in 20 years, panic that anything other than a victory will mean the almost certain concession of the Champions' League slot. And, most of all, panic that they are on the verge of losing local bragging rights that have been their sole preserve since 1987, the last time those unmentionables in Blue finished above them in the League.

Steve Finnan is no different to anybody else with that proud Liver Bird close to their heart. "It would be absolutely disastrous for the fans, players and anyone else connected with Liverpool if we lost to Everton twice in a season," he said, with a look that suggested he was fearful of just that. "Everyone has had their eye on this game for a while yet. It's more important than ever. A real must-winner."

What a difference a week makes. Without a fixture last weekend, the Liverpool mind was allowed to race forward to the Champions' League draw in Switzerland on Friday after that season-best stroll at Bayer Leverkusen, and to the three home games that would surely see Liverpool range up alongside their dear neighbours for the race to the Premiership's end. But then, as it always seems to at Anfield nowadays, the skids were suddenly put on a machine that had supposedly hit top gear. "Yes, Wednesday was a huge disappointment," admitted Finnan, referring to the goalless draw with Blackburn many believed fatally derailed Liverpool's charge regardless of today's result. "We kept a clean sheet, but didn't create enough chances."

The visitors could almost have nicked all three points as Liverpool bafflingly disappeared into that shell they have visited once too often in this stop-start campaign. Frustration has been the overwhelming emotion on the red side of Stanley Park, as every time they appear to have turned a corner, another one beckons to take them back to where they started.

"That result was so dispiriting because we had started scoring goals and couldn't this time," concurred Finnan. "We scored six over the two legs against Leverkusen and that could only have been good for us. Nevertheless, we're still confident that we can catch Everton in the Premiership, and there's no reason why we couldn't go all the way in the Champions' League. We've got the players and the experience of playing at this level."

But have they the stamina or the consistency? Events in midweek suggest not, especially in the Premiership, where they have effortlessly managed on so many occasions to leave their European heroics behind. Finnan is as perplexed as everybody else, although he does at least present one theory for this unfathomable correlation. "Maybe we are more suited to the European game at the moment, where teams are giving us that bit more space by attacking us," he ventured. "We have to work harder on breaking Premiership teams down. But it's difficult, because English teams do their homework and know how to play against us. When that happens you need to create chances or have good set-pieces. And we had neither against Blackburn."

One attribute they could show off on that otherwise forgettable night was their airtight back-four. The odd ghastly blips at Birmingham or Southampton aside, it is the stability of the third most stingy defence in the League that has frequently papered over the cracks of their crumbling attack. For Finnan, this has been the most welcome facet of the "Rafalution", especially as at the start of season, with the Spaniard Josemi seemingly installed as Benitez's No 1 right-back, Finnan's time at Anfield appeared to be nearly up. The 28-year-old, however, has proved remarkably resil-ient over the years, from the moment he was told at Crystal Palace he would be the one released out of the three Finnan brothers on their books to the day Barry Fry rescued him from non-League football to give him his chance at Birmingham.

Nevertheless, it hasn't been anything like smooth as the Republic of Ireland international has capitalised on Josemi's knee injury to take what he sees as his rightful place. In his private life he has struggled to get over the traffic accident he had a mile from Anfield in late January that only a fortnight ago claimed the life of an 81-year-old man. The boy from Limerick finds it impossible to talk about the tragedy in public, although sources at the club confess that this most affable of characters has been tormented with feelings of guilt despite the police confirming his innocence by taking no action after interviewing him at that West Derby roadside.

Unsurprisingly, a tragedy can put even the keenest rivalry in perspective, and perhaps that is why Finnan is genuinely excited by today's Mersey skirmish. "I am really looking forward to the game, as I missed the last derby in December," he said. "This is a match we simply have to win. If we do, then the gap will be down to four points, and then you never know. The games are starting to run out now, so if we want to overhaul Everton then we need to start winning games. We need to start winning this Sunday."

"And carry on winning," he might have added. Although, for an increasingly cynical Liverpool audience, this may very well be easier said than done.

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