The Mersey mission: Everton are on a high, but can they stay ahead of Liverpool
08:37 GMT, 27 October 2012
The late Liverpool manager Bill
Shankly achieved many great things at Anfield, and was also responsible
for one of the most cutting put-downs of Everton.
‘In my time at Liverpool, we had the
two best teams on Merseyside,’ Shankly once said. ‘They were Liverpool
and Liverpool reserves.’
Head to head: Nikica Jelavic and Luis Suarez will square up at Goodison Park
On a mission: Everton Manager David Moyes
Derby debut: Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers
A great line indeed, but one that
Kopites would be reluctant to trot out to their rivals as they head
across Stanley Park on Sunday.
Right now, it is Everton that stand
tall on Merseyside. Having finished ahead of Liverpool last season for
only the second time since their last championship success in 1987,
Everton will lead their neighbours by nine points if they win.
Even the bookmakers have David Moyes’ team as narrow favourites but the question is this: Can this blue supremacy really last
It's match night at Anfield on
Thursday. At the main stand coffee bars, the young servers wear staff
T-shirts with slogans on the back.
‘Liverpool without European football is like a banquet without wine,’ reads one from Roy Evans.
‘It’s not about the long ball or the short ball, it’s about the right ball,’ is another from Bob Paisley.
Such words fit nicely into the
romance of a visit to Anfield. It’s a stadium built to invoke memories.
It still looks the same, the announcer’s voice is instantly recognisable
and he still plays the best half-time music.
Out on the field, though, the modern
Liverpool’s version of Europe is a visit from Anzhi Makhachkala in the
Europa League. There’s not much romance about that.
Young guns: Samed Yesil (left) and Jack Robinson in Liverpool training before Sunday's Merseyside derby
Fall guy: Joe Cole (middle) takes a tumble as Sebastian Coates (left) and Jon Flanagan look on
Under new manager Brendan Rodgers,
there are steady signs of improvement. Liverpool are beginning to keep
the ball better and are defending better. They spend the majority of the
night in the Anzhi half, win on the back of a super Stewart Downing
goal and head to Goodison after three successive clean sheets.
Rodgers knows, though, that his immediate horizons, in terms of tangible progress, are limited.
‘Everton finished ahead of us last
season,’ he told Sportsmail. ‘I have seen reports and read snippets
where they think they can finish in the top four this season.
‘They are obviously very confident. My situation is different. I’m trying to get this team as competitive as I can.
‘The status of this club over many
years meant that it was always at the top. So no opponent was different
to any other. But that level has dropped. The hard work is getting the
club to the top end of the division.
‘Coming in to this job, this club had
finished sixth, seventh and eighth. That’s the reality of where it’s
at, so my focus is only on improvement.’
Rodgers is a wonderfully realistic
man. After a difficult summer transfer window, he knows the current
squad is not good enough for the top four. So if Everton do indeed
remain there, the chances are Liverpool will be in their wake again.
That would certainly be hard to take
but, crucially, Liverpool’s supporters appear to have bought into
Rodgers’ vision of baby step progress. On Thursday his name is sung
before kick-off and again during the second half. His trust in young
players such as Jonjo Shelvey and Andre Wisdom is clearly endorsed by
what looks close to a full house.
On the ball: Joe Allen (right) tries to shake off the attentions of Samed Yesil
Behind you! Allen tries to pinch the ball from Flanagan during training at Melwood on Friday
‘Jonjo’s like Bambi on ice when he gets going,’ chuckles one fan. ‘But at least he gives everything.’
Of concern to Liverpool is the
current reliance on two more senior players, Steven Gerrard and Luis
Suarez. The relationship between the two is beginning to look as
fundamental as that between Gerrard and Fernando Torres when Liverpool
last came close to winning the title back in 2009.
For all his faults, Suarez remains a
terrific player and Rodgers has done well to rehabilitate him after the
tribulations of last season. If Liverpool are to prosper, the Uruguayan
and his captain simply must stay fit.
‘We are having more controlled
possession and that’s the important bit,’ said Rodgers. ‘Anzhi was a
difficult game and we did well.’
Sunday, he can be sure, will be more difficult.
Goodison Park is a great place to
watch a derby. It’s a great place to watch any football match. It’s also
a stadium that is acting like a noose round the neck of long-term
Everton progress. In the dug-out, manager Moyes’ guts will churn as he
seeks victory over the enemy. He feels it that badly.
Over time, though, no matter what
Moyes does, a more predictable order may return to Merseyside unless
they find a buyer for the club or leave dear old Goodison behind.
Match-day revenue per season is
17.4m at Goodison. At Anfield it’s 55m and that’s before work begins
to increase Liverpool’s stadium capacity to 60,000.
The gulf is clear. Commercially — at
home and abroad — Liverpool remain a very big club. Everton — a club
that boast only a dozen executive boxes — are somewhat smaller. Last
season Liverpool were shown live on Sky and ESPN 22 times. Everton
featured on nine occasions.
Against this background, Everton’s current supremacy is all the more remarkable.
Keepers' capers: Brad Jones (left) and Pepe Reina in action with the new fluorescent Premier League winter footballs
Iron fists: Pepe Reina punches the ball away
Under Bill Kenwright’s ownership, the
club has pushed itself bravely in terms of finance. Everton pay good
wages — Marouane Fellaini earns 75,000 a week — and forthcoming
financial results will show total outlay in that area to be 60m, the
ninth-highest in the Premier League. Everton survive and prosper by
driving hard bargains when they buy players and selling one big name
every summer to keep the bank from the door.
Currently, it’s a model that is keeping them ahead of the Reds but still an inferiority complex remains among some supporters.
There is a perception that the authorities favour Liverpool.
The city council, for example,
recently granted planning permission and imposed compulsory purchase
orders so the redevelopment of Anfield could begin. Everton, meanwhile,
saw their attempt to build a new stadium in Kirkby thrown out by the
government in 2009.
Currently there are intentions to
look at a site on nearby Stanley Park. There was a meeting with the
council about it on Friday.
A buyer for the club would help.
Kenwright would sell for about 120m, but who would want to buy a club
with a stadium barely fit for modern purpose
In the Everton dressing room they are optimistic ahead of the derby.
A friend of one senior player says: ‘We think Liverpool are weak through the middle of defence.’
But Everton have fluffed their lines
against the enemy before, most notably when giving up a 1-0 lead in last
season’s FA Cup semi-final.
Over his decade at Goodison, Moyes has won just three of 20 league games against Liverpool but nobody can fault his ambition.
‘My job is to try (to finish above Liverpool) and I have to look to try to do that,’ he said yesterday.
‘It’s a big ask. Everton’s sole focus
shouldn’t be on finishing above Liverpool. We have to think about
finishing above Manchester United and City. That might sound crazy but
that’s what I’m thinking of.’