Form is temporary, today is permanent

Mersey derby: Everton are on a high and Liverpool's manager has talked of a 'crisis'. So it's straightforward - isn't it?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

A tale of two training grounds. Bellefield and Melwood may sound for all the world like executive housing estates, but are, in fact, unprepossessing venues in suburban Liverpool, no more than a mile apart, where for decades the footballers of the city's two great football clubs have done their day-to-day work. At the back end of last week, as the present generation prepared for this afternoon's 167th Mersey derby, the respective moods ought to have been predictably contrasting. And yet...

A tale of two training grounds. Bellefield and Melwood may sound for all the world like executive housing estates, but are, in fact, unprepossessing venues in suburban Liverpool, no more than a mile apart, where for decades the footballers of the city's two great football clubs have done their day-to-day work. At the back end of last week, as the present generation prepared for this afternoon's 167th Mersey derby, the respective moods ought to have been predictably contrasting. And yet...

Everton are going into the game ahead of their neighbours in the table, which is rare enough; their clearly talented manager, David Moyes, has instilled pride and optimism into supporters grown used to mere defiance. Just as good, after years of bowing the knee to Michael Owen, Ian Rush, Kenny Dalglish and the rest, Ever-tonians even have a potential superstar of their own in the gum-chewing teenager Wayne Rooney. Furthermore, a table of current form based on teams' last six matches not only shows the buoyant Blues with four victories but – far, far better – has Liverpool rock-bottom, below West Ham, West Brom and Bolton, having taken a single, solitary point out of 18. There has been so much chortling in and around Goodison Park of late that a few true Blues must have choked to death. No surprise, then, that Bellefield is bubbling. And yet...

Moyes, if not Rooney, experienced and mature beyond his years, knows the pitfalls. He might even be aware that on the few occasions that Everton have taken the pitch as top dogs for a derby game in recent years (like last September at Goodison), the result has been come-uppance, and a 3-1 defeat. To Blues brothers with a paranoid streak, it must all seem like a plot to put the upstarts back in the place they have occupied for all but three of the past 35 seasons: below their neighbours. To finish above them they have had to win the championship each time, and not even the most one-eyed Evertonian is predicting that outcome. So Moyes is more circumspect than bullish.

"Top dogs? I wouldn't say that," he insisted on Friday. "Other people might, but not me. When I took the job, Liverpool wasn't a consideration, outdoing them wasn't my goal. But they have suddenly become one of the teams around us in the League and I want to beat them."

A mile down the road, Melwood ought to be a morgue. After spending one Saturday evening last month seven points ahead of the Premiership field, Liverpool have staggered over every subsequent fence to find another challenger going past them. Having lost their first League game, to Middlesbrough, in mid-October, they could not stop, subsequently handing the points to Fulham, Charlton, Manchester United and Sunderland. When the highlights of a month's work for a team who would be kings are holding Howard Wilkinson's team to a goalless draw and beating Ipswich Town on penalties – both at home – it is not surprising that Gérard Houllier should have been caught using the word "crisis" and admitting to the worst period of his distinguished career. Black November (a month more normally marked on Arsenal's calendar than Liverpool's) also encompassed the defensive collapse in Basle that meant costly elimination from the Champions' League.

And yet... all is not as black as has been painted. Let us be honest: in this age of sensationalism, it rarely is. The cerebral Houllier and his more instinctive assistant, Phil Thompson, are adamant that of the five Premiership defeats, the Middlesbrough game was the only poor performance. In most of the others, Liverpool enjoyed dominant spells and created sufficient scoring opportunities to have drawn at the very least. The missing of chances ("One of the mysteries of life," Sir Alf Ramsey once mused) has been their downfall. Some of the defending has been unexpectedly poor but, as Leeds United demonstrated at Bolton last week, teams with good players do not go on losing forever.

In Liverpool's case, what might have been a demoralising spell of defeats has been leavened by two victories, over Vitesse Arnhem in the consolation prize that is the Uefa Cup, and, particularly, the events at Villa Park on Wednesday night. Another loss there, once Houllier had decided to field a first-choice side for the Worthington Cup quarter-final, would have been the worst of all possible worlds, draining confidence and morale as fast as fitness just four days ahead of the Everton game. When Villa recovered from 3-1 down to 3-3, the nightmare scenario of defeat in extra time (or on penalties) some time around the midnight hour was being scripted, but it was avoided in glorious fashion by Steven Gerrard's charge, Danny Murphy's finish and wild celebrations, all suggesting that a corner had been turned.

Back to Melwood and enter Thompson, hardly looking like a man who wonders where the next win is coming from. Indeed, he is still basking in the glow of the previous one, on Wednesday night: "A fantastic football match and I think it'll have lifted the players immensely," he smiled. "The mental strength and commitment were brilliant. The statistics say we've lost five of the last six games, but we've been playing well and not got the results we deserved."

As a veteran of more derbies than he cares to count, Thompson is more aware than most of all that today's event entails. He still grimaces at the memory of a 4-0 home defeat by Everton almost 40 years ago, when he used to stand on the Kop, and beams broadly when recalling taking part in Liverpool's 5-0 romp at Goodison in 1982. "When the fixture list first comes out, you look and say, 'When are the derbies?' People say you're too pysched up to perform in those games, but I felt I had some of my best games in derbies. When you're a local lad, it's inbred as a child. For players from abroad, it only takes a short time to realise the importance of it. They've got the fans on at them day after day. They've got staff members like myself telling them. And Gérard is as passionate as I am about the derby. But it's much easier playing, when you can do something about it, than sitting on the bench or being a fan."

A few problems unquestionably remain for Liverpool's management team – or the players concerned – to put right: notably, Sami Hyypia's wavering form, the unreliability of Djimi Traoré at left-back and Owen's lack of Premiership goals – a statistic just screaming to be rectified today? On the other hand, Chris Kirkland has made such a good impression in goal that Thompson says he will stay there "for the foreseeable future"; Gerrard has been "immense" since the manager took him to task in Basle; and the winning goal on Wednesday came from a flowing move of nine passes, with Murphy still full of running in the 94th minute to arrive in the penalty area and finish it.

Bravely, Houllier has insisted on taking the long view: "I want to be remem-bered as one who laid strong foundations for the future. I have bought young players who will get better, not players who will get worse." It is an admirable philosophy. Which – win, lose or draw – will inevitably be lost altogether amid the bedlam that is derby day.

The tactical battleground

Defence

Neither side are settled at the back, Liverpool because of poor form, Everton owing to the untimely suspensions of Joseph Yobo and David Unsworth. Sami Hyypia, dropped at Sunderland last weekend, may find the pace of Wayne Rooney or Tomasz Radzinski too hot, though the same applies to whoever is detailed to mark Michael Owen. Gérard Houllier has shown a remarkable amount of faith in his French left-back, Djimi Traoré, who could do with John-Arne Riise in front of him for protection.

Midfield

Danny Murphy and Steven Gerrard suggested against Aston Villa that they can dominate this area, as long as the Worthington Cup tie did not take too great a physical toll. Thomas Gravesen will mix it with them, and Li Tie, unused to derby games, will be the only player who might put his foot on the ball (he will soon learn not to). The lack of natural width in either team should prompt Houllier to use Riise on the left, which would also help subdue the much-improved Lee Carsley.

Attack

The single most interesting piece of team news will be whether Rooney or Radzinski partners Kevin Campbell in the Everton attack. The boy wonder has already proved that he is not fazed by a big occasion – as long as it is on the pitch, rather than in the television studio – though it would not be a tremendous shock if he was initially kept on the substitutes' bench. Owen and Milan Baros both showed signs of renewed confidence at Villa Park and will be encouraged by the absence of Yobo in opposition to them.

Comments