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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 February 2021

Everton have 'fantastic opportunity' to beat Liverpool but recent history should serve as a warning

Premier League champions have lost three successive league games at Anfield and next face city rivals with a strong away record

Carlo Ancelotti is one of management’s great diplomats and it was a suitably diplomatic answer. The Italian was asked last week if he would rather win silverware or secure European football and, if there is little doubt he would place more weight on qualifying for the Champions League, he realises what matters to supporters.

But there is a third priority. It seemed to sum up Liverpool’s superiority on Merseyside when Everton sacked Marco Silva after a 5-2 derby defeat. Liverpool were European champions, Everton in the relegation zone. They used to have more victories in the Merseyside derby; now their wait for a win at Anfield dates back to the 20th century. Triumphing on Liverpool soil represents a different sort of holy grail for Everton.

That Ancelotti has won there with Chelsea and Real Madrid indicates the calibre of manager Everton were able to hire, despite their plight when Silva was sacked. In 2016, owner Farhad Moshiri referred to England’s north-west as the “the new Hollywood of football” and felt Ronald Koeman was a star capable of giving Everton box-office appeal. Ancelotti has proved more leading-man material, but Everton have only led at Anfield in the Premier League for 36 minutes in the 21st century.

A team with an outstanding away record this season could face their shortest journey in some trepidation. Ancelotti called it a “fantastic opportunity.” Liverpool’s recent record suggests so. Previously prolific, they have one goal in 438 minutes at Anfield. After going unbeaten at home in the league for almost four years, Liverpool have lost three in a row.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Allan could be fit to return for Everton, though Yerry Mina is sidelined. This game nevertheless looks harder than it did at the start of the week. Liverpool’s win over Leipzig on Tuesday seemed to herald a return to normal service. They had actually played well for the vast majority of last week’s trip to Leicester, before the sudden meltdown that brought three goals in seven minutes.

Alisson’s errors in his last two league games invite comparisons with Jordan Pickford’s fortunes against Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp may welcome back Fabinho but he still has a lengthy injury list. Yet their recent taste of Anfield derbies has been that Liverpool turn absences to their advantage.

Klopp fielded five teenagers in a weakened team that beat Everton’s full-strength side in the FA Cup last year; one of the rookies, Curtis Jones, was the match-winner. He rested Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino a month earlier and Divock Origi and Xherdan Shaqiri turned destroyers of Everton instead.

The damning part for Everton is that they have not even been losing to Liverpool’s strongest sides. Klopp has hosted Everton seven times, won six and been denied a clean sweep only by a contentious penalty.

The damage Everton have done to Liverpool is altogether different. Normally Pickford’s arrival at Anfield would be accompanied by images of his past mistakes there. Now, instead, it will be framed by pictures of his October lunge at Virgil van Dijk, which ought to have produced a red card; referee Michael Oliver subsequently admitted he should have dismissed the goalkeeper.

But even if Liverpool had played against 10 men for 80 minutes at Goodison Park and won, Van Dijk’s season-ending injury might have torpedoed their title defence.

Everton added injury to injury in that 2-2 draw. Richarlison was sent off for his tackle on Thiago Alcantara but Liverpool’s flagship signing was out for 10 weeks. Briefly brilliant in his first two appearances, he has struggled on his return, looking off the pace and costing Liverpool coherence. An improved display against Leipzig offered encouragement but Thiago may owe his place on Saturday to an absence of alternatives.

Liverpool’s shifting plans will probably be illustrated by the sight of Ozan Kabak in the middle of their defence, making his Anfield debut after two games that offered wildly different emotions: from the trauma of Leicester to the triumph against Leipzig.

It will be Anfield with a difference with Pickford spared his usual mockery and the vitriol that would have come for the foul on Van Dijk. But that difference will be still greater if an empty ground hosts an Everton win.

Published: February 19, 2021 09:31 AM

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