Positive attitude needed to end Merseyside derby hoodoo
You wouldn’t think Everton were riding high in fourth place in the Premier League given the veil of negativity that has quietly pervaded Evertonians' thoughts over the past few days, but a quick glance at the fixture list may explain why – it’s Merseyside derby week.
The build-up up to any local derby is fraught with tension, nerves and excitement. Workplaces, families and schoolyards are split down the middle, each nervously hoping they will be the one with the bragging rights on Monday.
For Evertonians though these local encounters have brought nothing but frustration and disappointment in recent years, none more so than last season.
The Goodison derby last October was building into an exciting game when referee Martin Atkinson sent off Jack Rodwell for a non-existent foul on Luis Suarez midway through the first half. Forced to check their attacking instinct in response, the Toffees instead chose to grimly hold on for the draw, with inevitable results. Suarez and Andy Carroll netted in a 2-0 victory.
Fast forward to the following March and Everton crossed Stanley Park full of confidence. Their usual post-Christmas surge in form had catapulted them up the table and into a FA Cup quarter final replay with Sunderland. Liverpool’s cup form was also impressive and just minutes after their FA Cup quarter-final win over Stoke the previous Sunday, the cup draw set-up a potential all Mersey semi-final.
It was the prospect of that Wembley date that clearly occupied manager Moyes’ mind when he chose his team in the league encounter. Despite Liverpool’s struggles at home (just four league wins at Anfield in 2012 to date) Moyes rested several key players with one eye on the replay with Sunderland the following week. Everton’s squad is neither good enough, nor large enough, to cope with such squad rotation and a Steven Gerrard hat-trick sent the Blues back home with their tails between their legs.
It was all ok though, because an impressive 2-0 win over Sunderland at the Stadium for Light gave everyone the tie they wanted – Everton v Liverpool at Wembley and a chance of revenge.
But, once again, the Blues froze on the big occasion. Nikica Jelavic’s first half goal gave them the perfect start, but Sylvain Distin’s horrendous back pass straight to Suarez for the equaliser soon after the break was a blow the Blues visibly could not recover from.
Once again they withdrew into their shell, holding on for extra time, but were made to pay when Carroll nodded home with just three minutes left.
It is a defeat that still irritates Everton fans today and has led many to question whether Moyes can really prepare his side for the games that matter – three wins in 23 derby matches suggests he can’t.
Of course, Everton have no divine right to win these matches and Liverpool have been and still are a very good team. But an aggregate 7-1 victory over three games last season is not a true reflection of the two sides’ current abilities.
Instead, Everton fans fear there is some sort of mental block when it comes to overcoming Liverpool. Something that sees the players either freeze or forget what made them such a good side in the first place.
They also curse the footballing gods, asking why Liverpool of all teams seem to have the mark over them. Steven Pienaar’s harsh red card against QPR and subsequent suspension for Sunday has merely added to the feeling of grim inevitability (there is already a fear that after all the fuss over Luis Suarez and his penalty box antics, the Uruguayan will dive – and win – a penalty at Goodison on Sunday).
They also fear that this current impressive, attacking Everton team – who at one stage this season had created more chances and had more shots on goal than any side in the four major European leagues – will drop into ‘containing mode’ – allowing Liverpool to come onto them; suicidal tactics that stunts their strengths and plays into the oppositions’ hands.
Once again this is not a dig at Liverpool, but there are eight places between the two sides in the table for a reason. They are yet to click under new boss Brendan Rodgers and – as results have shown – are infinitely beatable. Everton meanwhile have lost just once, making their second best start to a season since the start of the Premier League in 1992. If there was ever a time set your stall out to be positive and to attack the opposition it is Sunday.
The mood among the Blues fans will improve as the week goes on, they always do. But that is merely nerves and excitement overcoming rational thought – what is a football fan without hope after all?
But for David Moyes and his players they should have more than hope, they should have the belief and confidence to go and grab the Merseyside bragging rights on Sunday, and maybe free themselves of a few psychological shackles in the process.