Thursday 27 Mar 2008
Last weekend's defeat at Old Trafford ensured that Liverpool's wafer-slim hopes of being involved in the title race are at an end, so this weekend is now a crucial one for their more realistic hopes of salvaging something from another disappointing league campaign. In many ways it is also the best possible fixture for them to put their frustrations behind them and get their season back on track in time for the resumption of Champions League football.
Of course, their opponents are neighbours Everton, who also happen to be their closest rivals for the fourth Champions League slot, with just two points between the Merseyside clubs and a big drop of seven points before sixth-placed Portsmouth. That means that it is almost certainly between these two to decide who will finish in fourth place, and this clash at Anfield will go a long way to deciding which of them comes out in top.
In 2005, Everton pipped Liverpool to it, though their achievement was rather overshadowed a week or so later when the Reds won the Champions League, while qualification did the Toffees little good as they crashed out almost before the following season started, and it took them the best part of a year to fully recover. They are back and challenging again now though and will fancy their chances of winning at Anfield for the first time since September 1999.
They have only won twice in 16 derby matches since that day, while they have had a frustrating time in recent weeks, with a UEFA Cup exit followed by a defeat and a draw in the league. However, with Liverpool's own impressive form coming unstuck at Old Trafford, neither team will be high on confidence going into the derby, while Everton will be burning with resentment and a desire for vengence after the manner of their home defeat to the Reds back in October.
Leading at half-time to a Sami Hyypia own goal, things fell apart for Everton after Tony Hibbert was sent off for a foul on Steven Gerrard, which led to a penalty that was converted by Dirk Kuyt, who should have been shown a red card himself for a wild lunge before scoring another spot kick in the last minute after a handball by Phil Neville (also sent off). With Everton feeling that they should have had two penalties of their own, it was a hugely controversial win for Liverpool, and that is bound to be on the minds of the Toffees players.
For Liverpool, bouncing back from their flat and uninspired performance against Man United will be at the forefront of their minds, particularly as they went into that match with every expectation of finally ending their miserable run against their rivals. Having not only failed to achieve that, but also putting in one of their worst recent performances against them, there will have been a lot of private soul-searching away from the public protests about Javier Mascherano's sending-off.
Their complaints about the 'rough treatment' dished out to Fernando Torres were also a convenient way of deflecting criticism of the Spaniard's inability to cause any real problems for the United defence, so he will be eager to get his form back against Everton, particularly as he was left out for the previous derby at Goodison Park. Steven Gerrard will be equally fired up after underwhelming displays for club and country this week, as well as losing out on the England captaincy to Rio Ferdinand for the game against France.
Both Merseyside clubs have plenty of motivation for this derby, beyond the usual local pride and emnity between the players and fans. Hopefully that will lead to a match that is very competitive and fiery but not too tense or nervy, and while the October game was rather marred by awful refereeing decisions, it was certainly all the more entertaining because of them. Given what is at stake here, you can bet that any repeat of those kind controversies will linger long in the memories of whoever comes out on the receiving end of them...