Ahead of the 213th Merseyside Derby this weekend, Everton can boast impressive Premier League form, having gone nine games unbeaten since losing 2-0 at home in late November – the side that beat the Blues that day was none other than Liverpool. Since then, Everton have drawn away to Chelsea and Arsenal and defeated Manchester City at home, but travelling across Stanley Park to Anfield is never a comfortable proposition.
Liverpool themselves are in fine fettle, having gone six league games unbeaten since losing to Portsmouth in mid-December. Therefore this fixture promises to be a battle of two of the league’s form teams, with recent results elevating both halves of Merseyside up the table. After their Champions League qualification hopes appeared to be in tatters, the Reds recovered to re-establish themselves in the race for fourth, while Everton’s aim of Europa League football is still within reach despite the mediocre autumn form that threatened to drag the Toffees into a relegation battle.
In Derby history, Liverpool have the edge having won 83 games to Everton’s 65, and Liverpool have had the better of recent skirmishes, winning at Anfield in the league last season and drawing at Goodison Park. However, Everton tasted success last term too, knocking Liverpool out of the FA Cup in the most dramatic of fashion – a last minute extra time goal from Dan Gosling that sparked celebrations you would have to see to believe, especially given ITV’s infamous production snafu. That victory was Everton’s first in three years, when an Andy Johnson double helped David Moyes’ men to a 3-0 win at home in glorious August sunshine. The Blues have not won at Anfield in 11 years, when a Kevin Campbell goal was enough for victory. Thus this is a perfect opportunity for someone in Everton colours to bring instant hero-worship in the manner of ‘Super’ Dan Gosling a year ago.
It is easier said than done, however, as Liverpool are made of stern stuff whatever their tribulations this season. These games are always combative, physical encounters but often it is the team that keeps its cool that comes out on top. The FA Cup replay at Goodison a year ago, known to Everton fans forever as the ‘Gosling Derby’ is a fine example, as Lucas was sent off in the 75th minute, leaving 10 men to grind out a result that never came. But few heed this advice, as the Merseyside Derby is the most combustive game in Premier League history, with 17 red cards since inception in 1992/93. Both sides have their fair share of fiery characters, with Tim Cahill, Phil Neville and John Heitinga in the blue corner and Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard and Javier Mascherano in the red corner. All of the aforementioned players can provide important qualities for their team, but they have to remain on the field to do so.
Heitinga, one of Everton’s Derby debutants, has been especially impressive lately during the Blues’ fine streak of form. After an uncertain start where he was constantly shifted around the pitch, Heitinga has established himself at the heart of Everton’s defence and provides a dose of steel next to the silk of Sylvain Distin. After missing the victory of Wigan Athletic, Distin could return at centre-back in place of Philippe Senderos, who made a solid start to his Everton career last week. Usually the extra pace of the Frenchman would be required to handle the dangerous Fernando Torres, but with the Spaniard missing, Senderos’ more uncompromising style should suffice.
Both sides have been quietly rebuilding their season after early-season disappointments, but a Derby victory for either team would once again grab the headlines. With Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa meeting in Saturday’s evening kick-off, one of Liverpool’s Champions League rivals could drop points, while Everton will look to put pressure on Birmingham City with a victory in their neighbour’s back yard. Three points will put Everton seventh for at least 24 hours and the Blues of Birmingham face a Derby of their own against Wolverhampton Wanderers at St Andrews.
For supporters, the Merseyside Derby is always about getting bragging rights over the opposing fans, be they family, friends or workmates. But it is important the players do not lose sight of what it really means to them – three points. Let the supporters worry about getting one over their rivals. Win or lose, there will be plenty of banter back and forth, and they would not have it any other way.