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It’s finally game on in the ‘friendly derby’ once again

| Tuesday, October 13, 2020

When I became a soccer fan and developed my fandom for Liverpool Football Club, in the spirit of the so-called “friendly derby” (well actually, just to get under my skin), my brother naturally chose to support Everton. By electing to support the city’s smaller, less successful team that eventually became dubbed “the People’s Club”, he gave himself the opportunity to brand me as the “bandwagon” fan.

He suggested that I become a Warriors fan as well more times than I would have liked, but his moral superiority could only go so far to dull the pain of consistent mediocrity. When the two clubs situated less than three-fifths of a mile apart meet in the 238th edition of the Merseyside Derby Saturday, it will be precisely a decade since the Toffees last beat the Reds — a 2-0 win at Goodison Park, the site of this Saturday’s clash. 

For context, current Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta scored for Everton that day, while then-Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard is now trying to deny Celtic’s pursuit of 10 straight league titles in Scotland as manager of Rangers. The managers at the time, Roy Hodgson for Liverpool and David Moyes for Everton, have worked a combined seven different jobs since. 

For the first time my brother and I can remember, however, it will be Reds chasing the Toffees in the league table. It may just be the fifth game in each side’s 2020 league campaign, but the utter madness before the international break adds tremendous significance to Saturday’s match. 

Normally, a college football Saturday sans Notre Dame means I make time to consume EPL action on Sunday, but I fortunately spent my Saturday two weeks ago watching Alabama and Georgia smack Texas A&M and Auburn, respectively. While I crammed for some midterms the following afternoon, I thankfully missed Liverpool become the first defending champions of England to let in seven goals in a single match since 1953. 

On a day when the football world was already in shock after a listless Manchester United conceded six times to Tottenham Hotspur at home, Liverpool practically said “hold my beer” with a 7-2 loss at Aston Villa, who avoided relegation last year by a single point. Liverpool has had one of the best defenses in Europe over the past two years, largely thanks to the acquisition of man-mountain Virgil Van Dijk, but Jurgen Klopp’s men became the first Liverpool side to concede seven times since a 1963 loss to Spurs. 

Everton, meanwhile, are basking in the brilliance of three-time Champions League-winning manager Carlo Ancelotti. For the last half-decade, Everton has spent plenty of money despite their “People’s Club” moniker, but have been unable to avoid chronic underachievement. The signing of former Real Madrid and Bayern Munich midfielder James Rodriguez already looks like money well spent after three goals and two assists in four Premier League games, but he has not even been the real revelation. 

Toffee forward Dominic Calvert-Lewin just might be the hottest striker in the world at the moment. After nine goals in six games in all club competitions and a debut goal for England against Wales last Thursday, he will probably feel emboldened after seeing what Ollie Watkins and Jack Grealish did to the Reds’ back-line two weeks ago. 

Joining Villa as the only other team still with an 100% record, Everton currently sit atop of the table as they look to maintain a historic start to the season. If they beat Liverpool for the first time in 23 tries on Saturday, Everton will have won their first eight games in all competitions, which they last accomplished in the 1894-95 season. The result of that eighth game 126 years ago? A 3-0 victory in the first official Merseyside Derby, of course. 

Everton has struggled notoriously at Anfield, where they last won in 1999, but should feel due for a big result at home. The last two times Liverpool has made the journey across Stanley Park to play Everton at Goodison, the Toffees have held the Reds to scoreless draws, no small feat considering Liverpool picked up a total of 196 points out of a possible 228 during the last two league campaigns. 

Of course, the debacle at Villa Park might only awaken Klopp’s dynamic machine that Liverpool fans like me have come to know and love, and there has been some very encouraging news on the injury and illness front. Captain Jordan Henderson is set to return after a thigh problem, while Sadio Mane and Thiago Alcantara are back from isolation after testing positive for COVID-19 earlier in the month. All three missed the Villa game, but they should all feature in some capacity on Saturday. 

The continued absence of starting goalkeeper Alisson Becker due to a shoulder injury, however, looms large after his replacement, Adrian, ensured Villa’s rout started early with an atrocious error just four minutes in. 

Regardless, soccer fans everywhere will be salivating over the genuine possibility that one of the world’s oldest derbies will be the showdown it should be once again. Liverpool’s decade of dominance took some sting out of the rivalry, but Klopp’s men will definitely have their hands full come Saturday. Unfortunately, the two terrific fan bases will not have a real opportunity to contribute to the spectacle put on by two top teams led by two famed managers. However, divided households in England’s northwest, and around the world, should be in for a treat while glued to the television.  

There are not many things I would wake up at 7:30 on a Saturday for, but it will be worth it if I am the one gloating to my brother over FaceTime after the final whistle. 


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