“With Newcastle, with Chelsea, even with Valencia in the past we play against Liverpool,” said Rafa Benitez. Yet as he becomes the first manager since the 19th century to lead both clubs in a Merseyside derby, this will be a game unlike those. “Now with Everton it is different, it is special,” said the Spaniard. “Here the passion is massive. Living in the city, I know that.”
He led Liverpool for six years, 350 games and one unforgettable Champions League triumph but if Wednesday is about their shared past, the more pertinent part is about his present with Everton. Rewind a couple of months and only Liverpool had more points. Now Everton have gone seven games without a win, taking a lone point from the last six and failing to score in the three most recent.
In contrast, Liverpool have won their last three games by an aggregate score of 10-0. Benitez has never been such an underdog in this fixtures but he sees a reunion as a chance to rejuvenate Everton’s campaign.
“We start the season, we were doing really well and everyone was happy,” he said. “Now everyone starts to question everything.” But he senses that victory could be catalytic; for them, and perhaps for him, after a tide has turned. “If we get three points, it could be a massive change in our season,” he said. “We have a bad run now but it is an opportunity to improve everything for the rest of the season.”
To do that, he is calling upon the supporters who barracked him in his Liverpool days and booed after defeat to Brentford on Sunday. “The fans are intelligent; they know we need them,” said Benitez. “They are crucial and the main thing. If we create a good atmosphere, anything can happen.” A bad one, however, could be ominous for him.
It is a moot point how much the dissent stems from the controversial appointment of Benitez and the recent slide and how much it reflects an extended period of underachievement. “I can understand the frustration from the fans because we want to do well and for some years we have not been improving at the level they deserve,” said Benitez. “We share this frustration.”
Brentford 1 Everton 0: player ratings
But the fact Everton’s last derby win at home was in 2010 illustrates the underlying problems; as Benitez said: “Rome wasn’t built in a day so we are working on that.”
Liverpool drew 2-2 at Goodison Park last year, but it arguably finished their title defence. Virgil van Dijk’s season reached a premature end in October with a cruciate ligament injury. Thiago Alcantara’s debut campaign was interrupted for two months after a lunge from Richarlison that brought him a red card. Jordan Pickford escaped without the same punishment for his still worse challenge on Van Dijk.
“It is difficult to forget or ignore something like that,” said Jurgen Klopp, who believes Merseyside derbies can be too physical. “We are all human beings.”
The Dutchman tends to be the calmest character around but Klopp will still urge his side to retain their composure amid the noise. “You need a cool head,” he said. “We are still an emotional team but we have to use your emotions in the right way.”
If Van Dijk has not been quite as imperious since his return, Klopp launched into a staunch defence of the centre-back. “People are quick if things are not like they are but these kinds of judgments make no sense,” he added. “He has been absolutely brilliant since he came back. If some things are not like they have been it is only a matter of time.”