Merseyside derbies do not need hyperbole but the 238th competitive match between Liverpool and Everton is the most important renewal of the rivalry in many seasons. The game at Anfield on Saturday has the potential to define the direction of the rest of the campaign – and beyond - for both teams.
Everton have everything that their fans have craved during the Premier League era. They are managed by Carlo Ancelotti, a coach who has won the Champions League three times. They have money to spend and feature James Rodriguez, a creative player of global renown. They face a Liverpool side who are struggling with an injury crisis, one that Everton can claim to have instigated when Virgil van Dijk was poleaxed by Jordan Pickford at Goodison in October. What if these positives are not enough?
Ancelotti’s biggest task is to shift the psychological balance on Merseyside. It is 11 years since Everton were victorious in a derby. That is damning enough but it is the tip of the iceberg.
More than a quarter of a century has passed since Goodison’s trophy room was last in use. Liverpool’s 30-year title drought might have amused Evertonians – until Jurgen Klopp’s team ended it last year – but the reason that the long, league lean spell was a constant topic of conversation is that Liverpool remained relevant throughout the three decades. Their neighbours did not and Everton’s 1995 FA Cup final victory over Manchester United feels like an aberration.
Goodison’s last title win was in 1987, just three years before Liverpool’s penultimate league success. But even then Anfield was in ascendency. The only people that can remember when Everton - the one-time ‘Mersey Millionaires’ - were the dominant team in the city are senior citizens. The existential angst that comes with being an Evertonian grows as time passes. And a lot of time has passed.
In the two-team or multi-club cities where Ancelotti has managed the 61-year-old has always been in charge of the more successful club. At Juventus, Milan, Chelsea and Real Madrid, the Italian went into derbies from a position of strength, not inferiority. On Merseyside the opposite is true.
Reversing Everton’s mindset is not an overnight job. The shadow of Liverpool has grown longer and darker over the past two years, with Klopp delivering the Champions League and the title to Anfield. Saturday presents an opportunity to start the process. The problem is Everton are in a poor run of form themselves.
The team were dreadful in the 2-0 defeat by Fulham at Goodison on Sunday. They were competitive for the first hour against Manchester City on Wednesday but belief evaporated when Pep Guardiola’s side turned up the tempo in the second half of the league leaders’ 3-1 victory. Ancelotti left Rodriguez on the bench until the closing stages of the City game. It could have been the Everton manager saving his most talented player for the derby but the likelier scenario is that Ancelotti was concerned that the Colombian’s workrate would be exposed by a team like City. For all his ability, the 29-year-old is not ideally suited to English football. Everton may look for someone younger and more mobile in Rodriguez’s position in the summer.
The return of Allan, who has been absent with a hamstring injury since mid-December, will give Ancelotti extra class in midfield. In Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who has missed the last two games, the Italian has a striker who can make the most of Liverpool’s defensive distress.
The prize for victory is that it would ignite a realistic challenge for the top four. Everton have only qualified for Europe’s showpiece competition once in the Champions League era and Liverpool took the shine off the achievement by winning the trophy in Istanbul. That meant Rafa Benitez’s side were the holders and joined the next year’s tournament despite finishing fifth, a place below their neighbours. To add to Everton’s pain, they were knocked out before the group stage.
Champions League involvement would go a long way to breaking down Goodison’s mental barriers, as would winning the FA Cup. Everton face City in the sixth round at Goodison in a repeat of Wednesday’s game so that task may be beyond them.
Three points on Saturday would put the top four in sight. Almost as important to Evertonians would be the damage it would inflict on Klopp’s team. In the longer term Ancelotti needs to end the unhealthy obsession with Liverpool. The fixation with Anfield is the clearest symptom of second-team-in-a-city syndrome.
The prospects are positive for Everton. On Tuesday it is likely the next step towards the new ground on the Bramley-Moore dock will be waved through by the council. The move from Goodison will be painful but the thought of playing in a world-class stadium in three years’ time is enticing.
But to get the best out of the future, they need to break from the past and try to move forward as equals to their neighbours. Winning in front of the Kop would be the first step. Too often in the past Everton have tripped themselves up by thinking too much about Liverpool.
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