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Rodgers to change Merseyside plans?

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers
Brendan Rodgers will manage his first Merseyside derby as Liverpool manager.
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James Horncastle

James Horncastle is a contributing writer for FOXSoccer.com who specializes in coverage of the European game. His work has been prominently featured in The Guardian, FourFourTwo, and The Blizzard.

   
 

There's a moment towards the end of the penultimate episode of FOX Soccer's Being: Liverpool when manager Brendan Rodgers is in his office at Melwood training ground discussing his philosophy. His words play out over shots of Anfield preparing for the first home game of the Barclays Premier League season with a typically stirring and uplifting rendition of “You'll Never Walk Alone.”

"Every day of your life," Rodgers insists, "you have to give everything for the club. There's an obligation. It's not a choice. You're obliged to be motivated, to go and work hard and give your all for the shirt because it's a way of life."

Say what you like about Rodgers, but one of the conclusions to draw even at this early stage of his career on Merseyside – and it comes across throughout the documentary – is that he seems to “get” Liverpool. He understands what is expected of a manager at the club, how it differs from other jobs, and where his priorities should lie.

That Rodgers appreciates the club's history, as shown when stadium announcer George Sephton remarks on how he dug out and restored the “This is Anfield” sign originally put up by Bill Shankly, "impressed a lot of people." As his first Merseyside derby approaches, Rodgers will be under no illusion as to its meaning to the supporters.

This one, the 219th, comes at a time when respect between the two clubs is arguably greater than ever before. Liverpool expressed a heartfelt appreciation to Everton after they made a series of poignant gestures following the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel in September.

The club shop placed home and away shirts in the window with "Remembering the 96" written on the back. Before their match kicked-off against Newcastle, they were led out by two mascots, one in a blue No.9 Everton shirt, the other in a red No.6 Liverpool shirt as The Hollies' song 'He ain't heavy, he's my brother' played on the PA system.

As a display of compassion and solidarity, it was profoundly moving. Sunday's game at Goodison Park arrives just over a month later, but that act certainly will not be forgotten. Everton and Liverpool may be far apart in the table – six points separate fourth from 12th place – but it's difficult to think of a time when they have been closer together. Still, it goes without saying that this derby promises to be competitive and played in the best of spirits.

Judging by their league position and their break with recent history by starting the season well for once, Everton are slight favorites. After finishing above Liverpool for the 26th time last season, they appear well placed, even at this early stage, to do so twice in a row for the first time when they've both been in the same division since 1937. And yet, while Everton have lost only once in the Premier League this season, it's also true that they have drawn each of their last two games against teams in the bottom five.

Then of course there's the memory of Merseyside derbies past. Everton lost at home and away last season, not to mention in the FA Cup semifinal at Wembley when an 87th minute Andy Carroll header sealed a come-from-behind 2-1 win for Liverpool. That hurt and the pain brought renewed if circumspect criticism.

For all the wonderful work Everton manager David Moyes has done in his decade at Goodison, the one question mark that persistently punctuates his achievements is a poor record in big games. In encounters with the Premier League's traditional top four [Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool], he can count just 12 wins from 84 games. Against Liverpool, in particular, it's played 20, won three, drawn five, lost 12.

While there's comfort to be found in the expectation that Marouane Fellaini and maybe even Tony Hibbert will return from injury, the absence of the suspended Steven Pienaar will be felt, even if Kevin Mirallas has revealed himself to be a more than capable alternative.

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It's not as though Liverpool are without selection headaches too. Goalkeeper Pepe Reina is still a doubt with a hamstring strain, Lucas Leiva is a month away from recovering from a torn thigh muscle and Fabio Borini has been ruled out until the New Year with an ankle fracture. It has been well-documented that his spell on the sidelines leaves Liverpool with only one senior striker in the squad, namely Luis Suarez. God forbid anything should happen to him.

Thus far, however, Rodgers has coped. Since Borini's injury, Liverpool have won each of their last two games by 1-0 scorelines against Reading last Saturday in the Premier League and Anzhi Makhachkala on Thursday night in the Europa League. They have also kept a trio of consecutive clean-sheets.

The concern for Liverpool, however, remains a lack of squad depth and recovery time. Rodgers played a strong team against Anzhi less than 62 hours before the derby. The curiosity will be whether it catches up with Liverpool.

"For us, it is about taking one game at a time," he said. "Our squad is not overly big, but we were at home and the condition of the players physically is very good. So I had no concerns about that. The work-rate in training and the games has been fantastic. We will recover well after a very good performance and result, and now we are all really looking forward to Sunday."

As are the rest of us.

James Horncastle is a European soccer writer with articles published in The Blizzard, Champions magazine and FourFourTwo.

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