This is the week of the Merseyside derby.
This week is the week when only those intoxicated by alcohol or pride make predictions with any true conviction and confidence. This is the week hyperbole swirls over the River Mersey and looks linger on the back pages of the local newspaper that little bit longer. This is the week of anticipation; anticipation of seasons being defined, of moments and memories -- good, bad, ugly -- being created forever.
- O'Farrell: Top five Everton derby goals
- Battle of Mersey pride
- Gerrard: Suarez going nowhere
But this week, the week of its 220nd installment, has been bereft of such build-up. This is the week of the weakest derby in recent years, a battle for sixth-place and little else. No leagues or cups can be won or lost, nor does the threat of relegation loiter. Some will claim pride is to play for, as it ever was -- but there's little to be proud of from either team, both falling short of pre-season aspirations.
How violently things turn in the whirlwind of time. Just eight years ago, Liverpool visited Goodison Park on a black winter's night as European champions. Everton, meanwhile, were struggling in 16th -- far removed from the fourth-place finish of the season before. The narrative had already written itself: the Reds looking to send their rivals further into relegation trouble, the Blues looking to dent the noses of the best team in Europe.
That it was the former and not the latter -- Liverpool won comprehensively 3-1 -- matters not. What mattered was how every pass, shot and tackle, well, mattered. It was a game of importance; an opportunity for Liverpool to establish themselves as a Premier League force once more, a chance for Everton to prove the season previous was not an anomaly.
And so it has been for decades. Rarely do both sides approach a derby with such little inspiration.
David Moyes will claim that their bid for European football still breathes, though its carcass lies motionless, while Brendan Rodgers will emphasise the importance of finishing as highly as possible. Supporters will greet full-time with delirium or despair regardless, for short-term euphoria will always exist in a derby. But when adrenaline falls, reality rises: Whether it is Everton guaranteeing to finish above Liverpool, or Liverpool moving to within two points on sixth, there is little to celebrate.
Before the kick-off in a Goodison Park derby of yesteryear -- a few years after Liverpool's remarkable victory in Istanbul- - Liverpool fans unfurled a banner with a simple message: Everton, 1244 steps from the European Cup. Those who made the banner made that walk so familiar, along the uniform terraced housing and through the divisive parkland, to count the numbers of steps between the stadia. It served to remind their neighbours of what greatness rested a mere jog away; it served as the perfect motivation, as an angry, vociferous Everton crowd saw their side win 3-0.
No such bragging rights this year. Although the trophy won by the Bosphorus glistens in Anfield's trophy cabinet, in reality the club are far more than 1244 steps from another one. It feels more like 1244 miles.
Watching the Bundesliga's top two sides annihilate their Spanish counterparts in Europe provided the English game with a maddening jolt to their arrogant, aloof exteriors. The eyes of Europe used to fall upon England; eyes widened at what the Premier League produced. No longer -- the eyes of England instead look through the window, agog at the brutality of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.
No English club surmises the fall more than Liverpool. No English club will have had their ambitions curtailed by the Bundesliga battering as much as Liverpool. In four games and an aggregate score of 11-3, this year's semifinals provided a clear, tangible sign of how much is required from Liverpool to be at that level once again; a clear, tangible, humbling sign.
Before any whimsical notion of becoming the best in Europe, they must be the best on Merseyside. Trite, but true. It is a chastening reminder to Liverpool, its manager and playing squad as to just how much rebuilding the squad needs.
For all the rhetoric over power shifts on Merseyside over the past few years, the gap has unquestionably narrowed -- last season was the culmination of years of stability at Everton, and anything but that at Anfield.
In the aforementioned 2005-06 season, Everton would finish 32 points behind their rivals. The next two years saw it become 10 and 11, before Liverpool's title challenge increased the gap once more. After that, barely a few points have separated them -- 23 became two, two became four; last season, Everton would finish above Liverpool for the first time since 2005, four points ahead of Kenny Dalglish's side.
Let this be a lesson to those who think stability matters little at a football club. There is a clear correlation between the gap narrowing and the instability that has torn Anfield from its foundations; Liverpool have had four managers in two years and a traumatic change of ownership, all the by-product of flirting vicariously with administration. The wounds of Hicks and Gillett are still yet to fully heal -- just ask those who still wrestle with the wage-bill, decreasing but still damaging.
Though Everton have hardly been bright beacons of fine administration in that time, they kept with their manager and allowed Moyes to continue imprinting his style on the club -- something Liverpool, in all its dystopia, have not allowed in years. Yet Everton should also feel aggrieved at how this season has developed -- the genuine top four tilt and strong cup chance has evaporated into a season defined by finishing above a team bogged down in transitions and triangle flipping.
The power shift on Merseyside does not rest on the result of one game, nor one season. Regardless of who finishes higher, Liverpool's sights must not adjust to the things that truly matter. They simply have to be better than Everton consistently, but they also have to be better than many others as well.
A win, draw or defeat on Sunday changes little. It is rare that can be said of a Merseyside derby. There is pride at stake, granted -- but that pride is not limited to just results against Everton. Everton may be 1244 steps from the European Cup, but it is Liverpool who must count the steps towards returning to what they once where -- no matter how small and infrequent they are.
This is the week of the Merseyside derby.