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Mersey derbies don't come much bigger

16 April, 2003

It's that time of season again...

For most fans of the two clubs, the Merseyside derby is always the biggest game on the calendar, but this Saturday's meeting at Goodison Park is surely the most important clash between Everton and Liverpool since Joe Royle's first match in charge back in 1994. More realistically, from the perspective of both teams, you have to go back even further and suggest that not since the 1989 FA Cup Final or our Championship-winning season in 1986/87 have the Blues and the Reds played a more important derby.

Not that anyone needs to be briefed on the situation, but going into Saturday Everton have 56 points, Liverpool 55, and with both clubs still chasing fading hopes of Champions League qualification, any points gained will be absolutely crucial. An added bonus to the possible realisiation of the dream of European qualification is the fact that David Moyes is well placed to become the first manager to guide an Everton side to a higher league placing than our rivals across the Park since Howard Kendall 16 years ago.

Simply put, this derby clash is almost as big as they get.

While Moyes has been spear-heading the kind of revolution we could only have dreamt about last summer, Gerard Houllier's erratic management has been causing much mirth among Blues' fans. However, while the Reds have shown a consistent propensity to fail when it matters most, supporters on both sides know that the form book goes out the window for the Merseyside showdown. Liverpool's tendency to self destruct cannot be counted on when it comes to derbies.

Everton will take confidence from the fact that only Chelsea have come to Goodison and won — and even then in highly controversial circumstances — and that both Arsenal and Newcastle have been sent home with 2-1 defeats this season. Goodison Park is a fortress once more, and Liverpool may be steeling themselves for battle but they can't be relishing having to step into the cauldron to face a Blues team with so much momentum behind them.

Add to that the fact that Liverpool have had the better of recent derby games (three wins to our one over the past four seasons), the sense of injustice from surrounding the Gerrard assault on Naysmith during the Anfield derby in December, and the fact that Master Rooney could make his first derby start and you have a recipe for sparks to fly even more than usual.

Indeed, the Rooney factor will be an interesting one. With Tomasz Radzinski a good bet to be fit in time, Moyes may feel that keeping Rooney out of what will be a highly volatile game until after half time would be better than throwing him in from the start. It may come down to weighing up his naivete and the level of provocation he will get from the Liverpool players and fans alike with the potentially damage he could do with his natural ability fuelled by such an electric atmosphere. Based on Moyes's desire to shelter his young prodigy and the number of full games Rooney has played for club and country in recent weeks, he will probably play it safe and begin with the Wonder Kid on the bench. It may not be a popular decision, but Moyes will feel it's the right one if Radzinski is fit enough to start.

The man charged with taking care of this latest blood-and-thunder installment of English football's biggest local derby is Paul Durkin, an appointment that has been welcomed by Everton, presumably because it wasn't Graham Poll (arguably the worst official on the Premiership payroll), Steve Bennett or Jeff "fake tan" Winter. Durkin is arguably one of the most level-headed referees in the game today, but that merely makes him a lesser of many evils. Certainly, he hasn't always been kind to Everton, but you could say that about every referee, so we should be happy with our lot and hope he can maintain order and a cool head.

In a context wider than local pride and the desire to finish higher than the Reds, victory is imperative if Everton are to retain hopes of upsetting Chelsea and stealing the fourth and final Champions League spot. Claudio Ranieri's side travel to Villa Park, a ground that has caused them trouble in recent seasons, to face an Aston Villa team that is still not out of the relegation woods. Newcastle, the team occupying third place and who, on the basis of their relatively easy run-in, are odds-on for Champions League qualification take on Fulham who are struggling for form.

Of the threats from below, Liverpool can obviously be taken care of with victory in the derby — which could give us a four-point advantage — and Blackburn have a daunting trip to Old Trafford which, depending on that result and Everton's fortuntes this weekend, could remove Graeme Souness's side from our rear-view mirror altogether.

With Moyes taking his side to Stamford Bridge two days later on Easter Monday, it promises to be a thrilling weekend after which he may have a better idea of where his determined Blues stand vis-a-vis Europe. The fact that such an important Mersey derby is not being televised live is tragic, but one thing is for sure: it won't be any less dramatic for it.

Come on you Blues!


Lyndon Lloyd

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