By Richard Buxton
LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND – Life offers only a limited number of certainties, but the outcome of a Merseyside derby is among that precious few.
No matter how emphatic a run they have embarked upon, Everton’s inner demons always resurface whenever they cross to the opposing side of Stanley Park. Saturday’s 3-1 loss to Liverpool was no different.
Victories against the Reds have been in such short supply that they have been occasional at best, with none since 2010. At Anfield, they have been non-existent in this millennium. A 228th meeting between the sides merely confirmed an extension of the status quo.
Endearment comes naturally to players that leave their mark in these clashes and, by that logic, Sadio Mane is already firmly on his way to footballing immortality for Liverpool. Admittedly far more than derby goals have left the Senegalese attacker hurtling towards Anfield’s lofty pedestal but they have further strengthened his case. His opening strike may have lacked the drama of last December’s injury time winner but the reaction was no less euphoric. A curtailed second half made for a bittersweet finale as Jurgen Klopp took another step toward cementing his side’s Champions League qualification credentials.
“When I saw [Mane] in the dressing room, it didn’t look like he is ready for Wednesday [against Bournemouth]. We will see,” admitted the Liverpool manager.
“Hopefully it is not that serious but, of course, it’s not nothing. That makes our life not easier, I would say.”
Had injury and international commitments not intervened, Mane and Philippe Coutinho could conceivably have spurred on Liverpool in taking the fight to Chelsea at the Premier League’s summit instead of battling the likes of Manchester City and Tottenham to be the highest placed also-rans. It has been a tale as worryingly familiar as Everton’s recent trips to their former Anfield stomping ground.
Form traditionally goes out the window whenever this city’s two great rivals face off. For Ronald Koeman’s side, however, it has become an enduring nightmare. Holding their own in the corresponding fixture counted for little and the Everton manager may now wish to reconsider his pre-match preparations. The Dutchman had spent the eve of the encounter engaged in late-night words of warfare with the Republic of Ireland camp and coach Martin O’Neill on their recent mishandling of James McCarthy.
His time would have been better served fine-tuning a three-man defensive line which was heavily exposed despite mixed success in its previous five experiments. But this was a horror show of similar proportions to the 5-0 humiliation by Chelsea in November despite the score line, and the statistics appearing to suggest otherwise.
Making his first start of the season, Matthew Pennington was largely consumed by this baptism of fire. He appeared worryingly ill-equipped to handle the confrontation that was Liverpool’s pace-laden attack, with both Mane and Coutinho both regularly getting the better of him. Although the defender offered some atonement when he pounced in front of the Kop to draw his side level, the feel-good factor lasted all of three minutes. The Brazilian, flown back by private jet to make this game, appeared to still be flying high when he pulled the hosts level again. Pennington, by contrast, had his head in the clouds.
It was not the only barometer of the gulf in standards between two clubs currently separated by less than a mile. Both clubs scramble to recapture their stellar pasts in an inglorious present.
Before kick-off, Liverpool remembered Ronnie Moran, their revered former coach. Anfield’s yearning to return to its ‘Boot Room’ dynasty was put into sharp focus by the recent passing of the last surviving member of Bill Shankly’s legendary back room ensemble. He was a key constant throughout a trophy-laden era. It was a period which, at its peak, coincided with the city’s two clubs vying for supremacy on the domestic and European fronts. League titles and show-piece occasions were divided between the pair during a five-year period. Klopp at least ensured that Liverpool served up a fitting tribute to its notorious ex-drill sergeant.
Spearheaded by new billionaire investor Farhad Moshiri, Everton have adopted a multifaceted approach in their attempted return to those past successes. But for all the grandiose plans of a waterfront stadium and talk of challenging for major honours, visits to Anfield serve as a continued reminder that what progress they are making off the field is merely cosmetic in the grander scheme of things. Pockets of their long-suffering supporters elected to end their biannual exercise in sadomasochism ahead of schedule and streamed towards the exits by the time Divock Origi, on for the injured Mane, had put the game beyond doubt on the hour mark after Mason Holgate gave away possession too cheaply. Therein lay the ongoing disparity between red and blue.
“Liverpool also missed some good players but they still had top-quality players and the young boys can’t beat a top-quality player,” Koeman said. “And of course, that’s the difference because other players have more experience. But to get that experience you need to play – and I’m not afraid to put young boys in because they deserve to play.
“If you get injuries back from international duty, you need to change. We didn’t change our game plan but, yes, we needed to change Holgate instead of Coleman, Pennington instead of Funes Mori. But that’s football. We played in a way how I like to see Everton playing and that’s why I’m proud about the team.”
Raw emotions also took hold for the Blues, particularly among their restless on-field natives. Ross Barkley resumed a running battle with Emre Can which had underpinned the previous three meetings between the sides but could have easily become another mere statistic as the 22nd recipient of a red card between the sides in the Premier League era. A lunging challenge on Dejan Lovren, fortuitously only cautioned. Another traversing the disciplinary tightrope in Tom Davies was similarly hard-wired but his frustration, too, was understandable. Both players belong to a new generation of boyhood Evertonians that have more than come of age in the years since their club last won at Anfield, in 1999.
Old habits continue to die hard for both clubs but Liverpool, at least, appear closer to realising their ambitions of turning back the clock than their nearest and dearest rivals.
Richard Buxton is a UK-based writer and special correspondent for Sportsnet. He filed this report from Liverpool’s Anfield stadium.