We did it! The players actually did what they’re paid to do and we won a game!
They didn’t half make us wait for it – not only the ninety minutes in which we had to withhold what was a mostly tepid Crystal Palace ‘onslaught’, but the month and a half from the win over QPR was an agonising hiatus from success. Being Everton, and doing what Everton do, we almost threw it away just moments after Lukaku gave us the lead. It took Phil Jagielka and the magic of goal-line technology to save us. Jagielka himself was excellent, along with Stones, and the pair of them together kept yet another clean sheet. If anyone knows any black magic that can keep this defence intact for the rest of the season, that’d be grand.
And speaking of magic, James McCarthy is actually back. No maybes, no “recovering quicker than planned”. Recovered. So now in midfield it’s Sophie’s Choice. Yet this time it’s dead obvious that Sophie needs to lash Gareth Barry in the bin. Besic and McCarthy, right? The new Kemosabe and Tonto, if Tonto was a death-eyed Bosnian pain merchant. Unlikely to happen. Barry will be kept in because of his experience. Yes, that’s right. We’re leaving discipline to the man with more yellow cards than any of his teammates this season or anyone in the history of the Premier League. If you can see the logic, do message us at email@example.com. The one obvious reason for leaving Besic on the bench is that he can get dragged out of position, which Barry doesn’t have the mobility to do anyway. In Barry’s defence, apart from a couple of early failures to follow his man, did a decent job at Selhurst Park. James McCarthy being back can only be a good thing.
The transfer window ended not with a bang but with a whimper, yet we did sneak a loan deal for Aaron Lennon over the line. A no-strings-attached loan deal for a player in a position we needed to fill is excellent, especially when that player is desperate for playing time and can unnerve many a defence with his pace. The problem is still the final ball, which Aiden McGeady lacks like the Daily Mail lacks common sense. Lennon isn’t exactly prolific in that sense. But he’s another winger to add to the roster. Evertonians on social media were getting misty-eyed when Tim Cahill put on a short-term cocktease but he’s off to China for yet another “final” payday. It’s nice to remember the Tim Cahill that scored a whole host of boss goals, but it’s best not to step back.
So we’re on the up, right? With a win under our belts we can really kick on and-oh right, it’s the derby isn’t it? Sake.
Just our luck that our closest rivals have to be our bogey team. The 244th Merseyside derby, and we’ve won 66 of them. Nine wins in the last 45. Not a single win in this fixture since 2010. Zero penalties against Liverpool since 2003. Oh, but we have won the last two February derbies – the FA Cup replays of 1991 and 2009.
We know exactly how to f*ck this one up, normally in the worst way possible. But this time, as we summon that colossal gang of bastards across the park and welcome their fans to the country, can we win this one?
Maybe. But it’ll be damn tough. Liverpool are the Premier League’s form team in 2015, and they’ve extended the #GetGerrardToWembley campaign by beating Bolton in their Fourth Round replay. Oh, did you know Steven Gerrard’s playing today? Yeah. His last Merseyside derby all told, unless the Europa League conspires to put us together. But that little bit of trivia shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all, should it?
No, wait. Hang on. I’m getting a message from the Sky overlords. Yes, it needs to be a massive deal. In fact, it should be a gigantic cringe-fest. Their groundbreaking “Liverpool, Champions of England 2014” coverage slipped through the net (insert LOLs, “banter”s, etc here) so they’re up for the Big Farewell Stevie G show. Think the Elvis Presley ’68 Comeback Special with fewer sequins. We’re really being treated to CringeFest 2k15 (k instead of 0 for added cringe value), which is no surprise really coming from a team with plenty of previous. In that case Roberto Martinez’s assertion that “we want it to be our Merseyside derby” is music to our ears. No guard of honour made up of rows of DJs he can slap to his heart’s content. No giving him the perfect send-off. Just like #GetGerrardToWembley, he’ll have to do the legwork himself if he wants anything out of it. But seeing as this could be my last chance – you’re an obnoxious tit Stevie, and you always will be. A brilliant player, sure. A talisman and one of this city’s most iconic footballers. Sure. Obnoxious tit. Absolutely. Have fun snogging cameras in LA pal.
In this form all of Gerrard’s Christmasses will be coming at once because Liverpool are on a roll. One defeat in their last thirteen (in extra time vs Chelsea), three goals conceded in their last seven, and the added boost of Daniel Sturridge’s return. Rather than having a circus up top or shoehorning Raheem Sterling into a centre forward role, they’ll have an actual striker, and one of the most lethal strikers in the country at that. Philippe Coutinho only runs hot and cold, and right now he’s very much the former. Sterling himself can also change games. Apart from those three we’re not exactly talking magic players. Cap’n Fantastic himself has been inconsistent this season. The likes of Johnson and Sakho are mongs whichever way you dress it up. Simon Mignolet’s gone from “great prospect, up there with the best keepers in the league” to “piss-poor, not Liverpool standard at all” in the blink of an eye. This from the team that had David James and Sander Westerveld as first-choice keepers once upon a time. There’s an awful lot of attacking initiative. However, despite their good recent record, the defence is there to be got at. Manchester United did it with aplomb. In fact, Liverpool have only beaten one of last season’s top seven – Spurs, back in August. But we’ve beaten none of them.
There are similarities. Both sides started slowly, but Liverpool picked themselves up over the winter period. Both are still working below their expectations. And there were some times recently where both sides of the city came together, mostly to have a pop at the police or the S*n. The former have decided that we’re obviously going to have a riot tonight, which isn’t in keeping with the Merseyside derby’s history at all. Like it or not we share this city with them, and that sense of togetherness will be encapsulated in the Hillsborough memorial that will be unveiled today. We’ve backed them all the way, as you do with kith and kin. But on the pitch it will be an all-out battle, with a year’s worth of bragging rights at stake. We’ll be looking like an Aaron Lennon photoshoot if we lose this one.
Mignolet in goal then for Liverpool. They’ve been playing with three at the back and full backs recently, which makes things interesting. Markovic is a doubt so it may be Johnson on the right. Skrtel, Can and Sakho in the middle. Moreno as left wing back. Gerrard and Henderson in the middle. Sterling right, Coutinho left, Sturridge up top. There’s not all that much in reserve unless Lucas, Lallana and Markovic are fit. The fact actual money has been paid for Borini is still a bit hilarious and Rickie Lambert, who was laying bricks about five weeks ago or something like that, has also been mostly rank. One of them to score the winner then.
So who does battle for the Blues? Joel in goal, you’d expect. If Tim Howard makes it back into the team and warms up by doing a load of star jumps we may as well swerve the game entirely. Coleman, Stones, Jagielka and Baines at the back. As it was last week and must be from here on in. In front of them, McCarthy and Co. I say “Co” because it’s either Besic or Barry, and there’s a case for either to start. But we know it’ll be Barry and Besic will just have to sharpen his studs on the bench for a bit. Ross Barkley was dropped for the Palace game but may make a return for the derby, when players with game-changing ability such as him are necessary. It’d be a surprise if Aaron Lennon is thrown straight into the starting XI in a game of this magnitude, and Aiden McGeady is Aiden McGeady, so there’s two for the bench. Mirallas on the right, Barkley left (yes, I know, I know….) and Naismith behind Lukaku. It’ll be a big one for Lukaku – after grabbing his tenth goal of the season against Crystal Palace last week he’ll want to kick on, and today he’ll need to be chief tormentor of this Liverpool defence. Lukaku took the game by the scruff of the neck in the 3-3 derby last season and a repeat performance may even see us win it if the defence can…erm….nah, it’s Everton. Another 3-3 in that case. Lukaku will be making his 100th Premier League appearance and is on 39 goals at the moment. Not bad for a 21 year old. Not bad at all.
Last week I portrayed Roberto Martinez as a man standing aboard the Titanic as it sinks, remarking how beautiful the scenery is. Well, this ship may not be sinking after all. Even if this was a normal game it would be massive as we look to secure back-to-back wins for only the second time this season. But it’s the derby, which is so much more. In September I asked for a bit of magic and Phil Jagielka popped up with just that. Dare we ask for more? To win this one would be…phenomenal.
Let’s bring the house down Everton. It’s derby day.