Merseyside derbies are exciting and all, but they’ve all too often had little meaningful riding on them over the past few seasons. With Liverpool seldom in realistic title contention and Everton fluctuating between European contention and mid-table tedium, the rivalry has outshone any relevance to the league table.
Monday’s clash at Goodison Park will be a little different. Everton brought the end to a poor run of form with a dramatic victory over Arsenal in midweek and, as a result of Everton’s success, Liverpool moved into second place in the table. Jurgen Klopp’s Reds are leading the chasing pack, but are six points off Chelsea, while Everton are only four points behind sixth-placed Manchester United.
Ronald Koeman released some pressure with that victory. The Dutchman, however, will feel all that weight return to his shoulders if his side do not perform on Monday. Klopp, on the other hand, is still the hero of the Kop.
As Chelsea’s winning streak reaches double figures, Liverpool simply cannot afford to drop points this weekend. With the gap already at six, the Merseyside derby’s status as a must-win game goes beyond the rivalry. For Liverpool to realistically challenge for the title, they cannot let the gap grow further and it will surely be assumed that Chelsea will claim victory over Crystal Palace this weekend.
Liverpool’s defensive troubles are eased by the presence of Joel Matip. But dealing with Romelu Lukaku is quite the task. Dejan Lovren, who is likely to partner Matip in central defence, has had a turbulent season. Some vastly improved performances have been equalled by some dire displays and this is the sort of game that could be significant in the future of his Liverpool career. Another mistake-ridden display and Lovren could be replaced in January, that’s how big the stakes are at this stage.
Additionally for Liverpool, this is a chance to make sure they maintain their position as peloton leaders. Manchester City and Arsenal face each other this weekend, too, in another match that could completely change the dynamic of the title race.
For Everton, success in this fixture could be the foundation for a strong run of form. Like Liverpool, their closest Premier League companions also play each other this weekend, presenting a chance for the Toffees to really make some ground on Manchester United and/or West Bromwich Albion who both sit just above them. European football is well within reach of Koeman’s side if they can reproduce performances like they showed against Arsenal.
And, just as Lovren could be playing for his Liverpool career, so could several of Koeman’s squad. With the Toffees poised to spend significantly in January, some players could yet be fighting for their futures. Poor derby performances stay long in the memory and a harrowing defeat here could hurry along some of the deals that Everton will be considering in January.
Renewed dreams and a fresh sense of ambition has changed the whole dynamic of the Merseyside derby in 2016. One of the world’s great derbies has grown into a fixture of relevance once again. Not for the first time in recent memory, but there is a sense that this will become the norm. Improvement at Goodison and Anfield, led by two excellent, exciting managers, has changed the image of football on Merseyside for the better.