It seems inconceivable now, but only seven months ago David Moyes, resplendent in a beige cardigan and holding a flute of champagne, appeared on television to toast the result that guaranteed Everton a shot at the Champions' League and, in the words of their manager, "proved we are the best team in this city". Neither Everton, nor the cardigan, have been in fashion since.
Defeat at Highbury on 8 May ended Liverpool's interest in a very parochial competition for fourth place and allowed Moyes to deliver his prepared retort to consistent claims by Rafael Benitez that the kings of Merseyside resided at Anfield. Even a man blessed with as much confidence as the Liverpool manager, however, could scarcely have foreseen how emphatic his response would be.
The Spaniard forgot all about Premiership disappointment when he lifted the European Cup 17 days later, yet that was an event far beyond the influence of his neighbours. It is what has occurred since that extraordinary night in Istanbul that has made a mockery of Moyes' boast. While Liverpool have fulfilled their manager's prophecy of gradual improvement to the extent that they are now considered an outside bet for the title, Everton have slumped into the downward spiral from which they thought they had escaped.
Tonight the rivals meet at Goodison Park, and the home side's supporters are approaching this Merseyside derby with a greater sense of foreboding than they have experienced for over 20 years.
Liverpool are performing with the swagger of European champions, and the inflatable European Cups that will illuminate the away section tonight will fill their hosts with envy, but Evertonian minds and fears are concentrated on the lack of character, leadership and quality in their own team. "I am looking for a big performance from them all against Liverpool," Moyes said. "The players have a responsibility to give one. It is a privilege to play for Everton and they should never lose sight of that fact."
The Boxing Day collapse at Villa Park was Everton's third 4-0 reverse in seven games, a defeat that has revived relegation talk at Goodison and renewed the pressure on Moyes. Seven months ago he could do no wrong as he took a team tipped for relegation and shorn of their two best players, Wayne Rooney and then Thomas Gravesen, into the top four but now, the Rooney money gone, the natives are restless.
"If I was an Everton fan, I'd be disappointed with how the team is playing," conceded Phil Neville, one of eight players bought by Moyes in 2005 but one of only two who has proven a qualified success, the other being the £2m signing Mikel Arteta. Transfer market errors include the £5m Danish defender Per Kroldrup, who had to wait until Boxing Day for his debut and will only play against Liverpool if Joseph Yobo fails a fitness test on a shoulder injury, while James Beattie, Simon Davies, Nuno Valente, Matteo Ferrari and Andy van der Meyde have not impressed or improved the style of the team which, for many fans, is what this campaign was all about.
Moyes' transfer problems will be laid bare again tonight if Mohamed Sissoko returns to the Liverpool side having missed Monday's dismantling of Newcastle through suspension. The 20-year-old met the Everton manager in Amsterdam this summer and verbally agreed to move to Merseyside, although his ultimate destination was Anfield once his former manager at Valencia, Rafael Benitez, intervened at the 11th hour.
"We had a big advantage because we had known the player for two years," admitted the Liverpool manager, "I had spoken to people in Valencia about him but they told me he was not for sale, so we didn't do anything. Then I heard they had agreed a deal with Everton."
"Like being gazumped on a house," was Moyes' description yesterday, and his insistence that he had agreed a lower fee than the £5.5m paid by Liverpool rang distinctly hollow.
Benitez has likened Sissoko to Patrick Vieira, "though in time much better", and has renewed his interest in Brondby's Daniel Agger and Deportivo La Coruña defenders Cesar and Fabricio Coloccini as he prepares to welcome a new centre-half to Anfield.
Moyes, by contrast, admits he will have only limited funds to spend in the transfer window, though having spent almost £25m this year he can hardly complain. Given what they have had in return the Goodison faithful can and, if the form book does not go out of the window tonight, they will.
* The Costa Rica winger Cristian Bolanos will have a trial at Liverpool in January. Liverpool had become interested in the player at the Club World Championship in Japan this month.Reuse content