It’s the Merseyside Derby at Anfield, March 26 2006. The infancy of the match is being played at a typically ferocious pace and as is commonplace for this volatile fixture, Phil Dowd has already dished out some yellow cards to the men donned in red and blue.
In the 17th minute, Liverpool’s inspirational skipper Steven Gerrard receives his second booking for a reckless tackle on Kevin Kilbane, and the Reds are forced to play the remaining 73 minutes with ten men. But Phil Neville scores an own goal on the stroke of half time, Luis Garcia nets just after the break and the home side go on to win 3-1.
“That was a missed opportunity,” lamented the Everton manager David Moyes. “We should have taken control”.
Just shy of four years on, the two Merseyside rivals are at it again on a marvellous spring day. On the half hour mark, with the score at 0-0, Liverpool defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos gets his marching orders for a horrible two-footed lunge on Marouane Fellaini; the Reds have an hour to negotiate a man down against an Everton team that has gone unbeaten for nine games previous. But Dirk Kuyt scores a header in the 50th minute to give the Reds a 1-0 win.
“I think there have been lots of derbies very similar”, exclaimed a frustrated Moyes afterwards.
Moyes was right. For Evertonians these narratives have been an all too familiar and although basic footballing logic would typically dictate that the Toffees shouldn’t have lost either of the aforementioned games, defeats were inevitable. Just because of whom they were playing and where they were playing.
When the two sides take to the pitch on Saturday for the latest instalment in this longstanding rivalry, it’ll be 15 years to the day since the Toffees last bested their city rivals across Stanley Park, when a Kevin Campbell goal gave Everton a 1-0 victory.
Since then, while the men from Goodison have admittedly come up against some very capable Liverpool outfits, there seems to be something both intangible and inherent about generation after generation of Everton teams crumbling at the sight of the baying Kop.
For a while, it was considered to be down to Moyes’ conservatism and the perpetual peddling of a narrative that Everton were a team punching above their weight. The Scot never once sent Everton to Anfield with an effective, offensive game plan, preferring to bunker in and play for a point instead. But when you play for a draw, more often than not you lose, and his return of five points in away derbies during his 11-year tenure is an emphatic indication of that.
Is it any wonder the Liverpool supporters satirically proclaimed that “David Moyes is a football genius”?
With the Scot gone, the previous visit was supposed to be different. With Roberto Martinez at the helm Everton had already wriggled free of one hex after defeating Manchester United at Old Trafford for the first time in 21 years. Perhaps he could repeat the feat with the red neighbours?
But such was the Catalan’s desperation to make an impression in the derby, he gambled on the fitness of myriad players, it didn’t pay off and Liverpool ran out comfortable 4-0 victors.
This Anfield complex has long been an irk of Evertonians, and you suspect that if Martinez was to smuggle three points back to Goodison on Saturday, then the reaction from those of a blue persuasion would be one of relief as opposed to sheer elation; the kind of way you’d feel after ridding yourself of a near-unshakeable toothache.
The derby is a game that in terms of palpable gains means no more than any other, of course. But if Everton are to move forward as a team, this is a hoodoo that must be laid to rest sooner rather than later. A ceaseless inferiority complex of any sorts—if there’s not one festering already—for a team and manager with lofty aspirations simply won’t do.
Just look at Atletico Madrid and what’s helped to facilitate their stellar development as of late. The Rojiblancos—long branded El Pupas, The Jinxed Ones—went 14 years without any kind of win over Real Madrid, but a Miranda winner in the 2013 Copa del Rey final against Real—at the Santiago Bernabeu, nonetheless—has seemingly obliterated that hoodoo.
Diego Simeone’s team went on to win the league the following season, and on their last two visits to the home of their illustrious rivals in La Liga, they’ve won. El Pupas no more, it would seem.
It’d be both naïve and misguided to suggest a victory at Anfield would expedite an Everton rise in anyway comparable with Atletico’s stunning ascension. But it would wipe out much of the fatalism that has crippled Everton teams ahead of these games in the previous 15 years.
And yes, you only get three points for a win. But it’s a win in the derby and a win that can be the cornerstone of a campaign. Liverpool themselves were fine example of that last season.
The 4-0 hammering of Everton was the initial catalyst for their stunning run in; before that victory they’d won just two of their last five matches, afterwards they won 11 of their next 12. By contrast, the Toffees’ rhythm was sapped and they lost two of their next three. Momentum of that ilk accrued from a win against your biggest rivals is nectar for managers and something Everton have had to ration for a long time now.
Ahead of this one, the Blues admittedly have a catalogue of problems to wrestle with, but this Liverpool team are also an extremely vulnerable one at this juncture. The eradication of basic individual errors and a shrewd game plan could perceivably see this team Everton emerge victorious against a Brendan Rodgers side that seems to have lost its swagger as of late.
But Everton need to stay levelheaded amidst a frenetic derby atmosphere, something that down they years they’ve failed to do much of. Indeed, looking back at the pair of games mentioned at the very start, the Toffees’ frustrations got the better of them as they toiled; both Andy van der Meyde and Steven Pienaar were sent off late on in 2006 and 2010 respectively.
It’s a massive mental hurdle to overcome, but as the years tick by, it’s becoming an increasingly difficult one to negotiate. So it’s very much a case of sooner the better for Martinez’s men.
And who knows? Everton have gone into this fixture playing superbly in the past and been swatted aside. Perhaps this could be the year after all? It’d be about time, really.
I’ll be at this one. Follow me on Twitter @MattJFootball for updates and photos from the Merseyside Derby.
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