By Séamus Leonard
The battle for sixth place in the English Premier League and the upcoming retirement of Jamie Carragher serve as the backdrop for the 220th Merseyside derby at Anfield on Sunday.
Less than 30 years ago, in the mid-1980s, these two clubs dominated the landscape both on the domestic and European fronts. Liverpool’s fortunes went into decline with the resignation of Kenny Dalglish as manager in 1991 and the appointment of Graeme Souness as his successor, although the Reds have collected a fine array of trophies in the interim and were once again among the giants of Europe during the reigns of Rafa Benitez, and, to a lesser extent, Gerard Houllier.
Everton’s last silverware came in 1995 when a Paul Rideout header gave them a 1-0 victory over Manchester United in the FA Cup of that year. But since then the 2009 final defeat to Chelsea in the same competition is as close as the Toffees have come to needing to make space in the trophy cabinet.
During David Moyes’ tenure, however, the Goodison Park outfit has established itself as a perennial top-half side, and has enjoyed many a European campaign, albeit mostly in the UEFA Cup/Europa League. Indeed, the Blues still hold out hope of clinching fifth spot and a Europa League place, although they would need a dramatic late-season collapse from Tottenham, Arsenal or Chelsea for that to occur. A victory at Anfield would guarantee them a higher finish than their rivals from across Stanley Park for the second consecutive season, which would be no mean feat for Moyes who has had to work on a shoestring budget (by EPL standards) since taking the reins in 2002.
While Moyes has done a marvelous job of making Everton punch above its weight in the intervening years, his record against Liverpool, particularly at Anfield, has been less than impressive. The Scot has never enjoyed a victory in an away derby, and you have to go back to 1999 to find the last time the blue half of Merseyside tasted such a success.
Liverpool’s home form has improved under manager Brendan Rodgers this season. The Reds have still lost four games at Anfield, but their total of eight wins compares favorably to the paltry six racked up last season. The old cliché claims that form book goes out the window in derbies, but it doesn’t really apply in this case anyway as both sides are in similar shape heading into this encounter. The visitors have three wins, two draws and one loss in their last six outings, while the hosts have won two, tied three and one defeat in the same period.
Liverpool, however, comes into the game on the back of a brilliant 6-0 win over Newcastle at St James’ Park last Saturday. The wretched performance of the Magpies was certainly a contributory factor, but it is not the first time Rodgers’ men have dismantled an opponent this season. The key for the Reds is finding a level of consistency that has so far eluded them. All the talk before last weekend’s game was of how Liverpool would cope without the suspended Luis Suarez. Afterwards, Philippe Coutinho was the name on the tip of everyone’s tongues. In a way, the little Brazilian’s form mirrors the erratic nature of his team’s results. When he’s in the sort of form he was last week he’s irresistible, but he can also find himself on the periphery of games (against Chelsea, for example). His link-up play with Daniel Sturridge was sublime at times on Tyneside, and if the pair can replicate that understanding on Sunday then Suarez’s absence will not be as major an issue as has been predicted.
But the aforementioned pair were not the only players to shine at Newcastle. Lucas Leiva gave a performance that suggested he can get back to being the exceptional player he was before his injury problems; Jordan Henderson bagged a brace of goals to further underline the strides he has made since Rodgers put the England U-21 captain back in the side; and striker Fabio Borini made a welcome return after a shoulder injury to come off the bench and notch his first-ever Premier League goal.
The defense also looked solid, and at the heart of all that was, of course, Jamie Carragher. It was announced during the week that the Bootle native will take up a role as television pundit with Sky Sports next season, thus killing any hope Kopites had that he could be convinced to stay on for another season. This means that Sunday will be Carra’s 30th and final Merseyside derby appearance. Should they need any additional motivation, surely his team-mates realize what a victory would mean to the veteran center-back as the curtain starts to draw on his illustrious career.
If you are in the greater Boston area, you will be able to watch the match at The Phoenix Landing with LFC Boston. If not, you can watch it on Fox Soccer, with coverage starting at 0830 EST.
Liverpool v Everton
When: Sunday, May 5, 0830 EST/1330 GMT
Where: Anfield, Liverpool
Previous Premier League match: Newcastle 0-6 Liverpool, Everton 1-0 Fulham
League Position 2012-13: Liverpool 7th (54 points), Everton 4th (59 points)
Projected Liverpool Starting 11
DEF: Johnson, Carragher, Agger, Jose Enrique
MID: Gerrard, Lucas, Henderson, Downing
FW: Downing, Sturridge, Coutinho
Subs from: Jones, Skrtel, Coates, Shelvey, Suso, Assaidi, Wisdom, Sterling, Borini, Coady
Projected Everton Starting 11
DEF: Coleman, Jagielka, Distin, Baines
MID: Mirallas, Gibson, Osman, Pienaar
FW: Fellaini, Anichebe
Subs from: Mucha, Heitinga, Jelavic, Stones, Hibbert, Oviedo, Naismith, Francisco, Vellios, Duffy, Hitzlsperger, Barkley
Follow Séamus Leonard on Twitter @seamusleonard