This is not your father's Merseyside derby

Posted by David Usher

I really don't like Merseyside derbies, especially those at Goodison Park. In fact, believe it or not, I'm on a self-imposed boycott of Goodison, having seen so many bad results at the Home of the Blues. It's not that Liverpool haven't had success in this fixture, it's just that they haven't had it when I've been present. I've only witnessed one Liverpool victory on the other side of Stanley Park and that was on my very first visit there in 1987, when an Ian Rush goal in extra time was enough to see the Reds progress in a League Cup tie best remembered for Jim Beglin suffering a horrific leg break.

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Every time I've been back since, it either ended in draw or defeat for the Reds. When I stayed away, Liverpool usually won, so -- despite not being an overly superstitious type -- I decided that I was obviously the problem and exiled myself from trips to Goodison. And lo and behold, things improved massively for Liverpool in my absence, with the Gary McAllister winner in 2001 being an obvious highlight.

Only once did I break my exile: In 2004, when a Lee Carsley strike won it for the Blues on a miserable day for Liverpool in which Rafa Benitez bizarrely started Salif Diao over Xabi Alonso (and waited 78 minutes to change it). I was sat in with the Everton fans that day; it was not a pleasant experience and I decided there and then I wasn't going to set foot in that godforsaken place again. I didn't even hesitate to turn down a ticket for this fixture, as I didn't want my bad mojo to hamper the Reds on what will be a difficult enough game as it stands.

Liverpool's preparation for the game has been less than ideal. The biggest blow for Brendan Rodgers was that Jose Enrique has been ruled out for several weeks, leaving a huge void at left-back. Rodgers has numerous options available to him, but none can adequately replace the Spaniard.

In addition, skipper Steven Gerrard took pain-killing injections to play for England in midweek while Daniel Sturridge was sent out to play on one leg by Roy Hodgson, and according to Rodgers, is now a doubt for the weekend. Sturridge has had the problem for three or four weeks apparently, which may in part explain the drop off in his play in that time. Playing 90 minutes of a friendly international with a dead leg four days before a Merseyside derby seems a tad irresponsible, and if Sturridge misses the game -- or isn't at his best as a result of it -- then Liverpool fans won't be best pleased with him or Hodgson.

Uruguay didn't do Liverpool any favours, either, by sending Luis Suarez out to play in a game that was little more than a formality following their 5-0 win over Jordan in the first leg. Still, the 0-0 scoreline suggests that the Uruguayan players didn't overly exert themselves and John W. Henry stepped in to offer the striker use of his private jet to ensure his early return to Merseyside, which should guarantee he's fully rested up and raring to go against a side he's had great success against of late. Suarez is probably the least of Rodgers' concerns; he's just so naturally talented and resilient he could step straight off a plane, onto a football field and still be the best player out there.

The one saving grace to Liverpool's possible fatigue is that the pace and intensity of this game will probably not be anything like it has been in the past.

The modern day Merseyside derby game does not have the fire and brimstone it had in the 1980s, or even the '90s for that matter. Derby games in the '80s were the highlight of the season for both sets of fans, as silverware was often decided on the outcome, and the pace and intensity of the game reflected that. For the opening half an hour, hardly any football would be played as nobody had more than a milli-second on the ball. Players kicked lumps out of each other as it was allowed back then; referees would let certain things go on the basis that "it's a derby game."

That has changed over the years to the point where referees treat it like any other game, even if the players often don't. That goes a long way to explaining the high number of red cards in the fixture over the last decade or two; it's certainly not more physical than it was before that, far from it.

Games between Liverpool and Everton are usually fast, frenetic and ever so occasionally violent, but there's every indication that this will be the least derby-like derby in many a year. Roberto Martinez is very much from the same school as Rodgers when it comes to his footballing philosophy. He's a purist and he likes his teams to pass the ball. Everton passed the ball under David Moyes, too, they just didn't do it against Liverpool because of the Scot's overly cautious nature and obsession with avoiding defeat rather than grasping the nettle and going for a win.

Under Moyes, Everton were always the little brother on Merseyside, even when they were finishing higher in the table than their more illustrious neighbours. A draw was treated like a victory (especially at Anfield), which was understandable, considering how few victories Moyes managed over the Reds. Since the days of Joe Royle, Everton's approach to encounters with Liverpool has been more about stopping Liverpool doing their thing rather than focusing on what their own players can do. But looking at where both teams have been finishing in recent seasons, there is no reason for Martinez to take that approach, and I'd be shocked if he did.

I'd expect him to send his side out to try and win the game, as Everton should rid themselves of the inferiority complex that Moyes instilled into them. Given the players -- and manager -- they have, this could be the most open Merseyside derby in years.

The stage is set for it to be a battle of the strikers. Liverpool have had major problems with Romelu Lukaku recently while Suarez has regularly tormented Everton, and Sylvain Distin in particular. Sturridge -- assuming he plays -- is also due a goal, having drawn a few blanks recently. With all that being said, no doubt it will be a defender who scores the decisive goal. Hopefully it will be one wearing Red.


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