Everton, Liverpool deserve praise
The feel-good factor is back on Merseyside. It has been a while since both Liverpool and Everton were in such fine fettle. There is hope – genuine hope – that if things carry on in the style to which they have become accustomed over the first half of this season, reward might come their way in May.
Although the situation changed according to the draw in the Arsenal vs. Chelsea match, Liverpool and Everton woke up after another brilliant weekend able to look at the league table with enormous satisfaction – Liverpool top and Everton nestled in the top four. It has not been a regular occurrence for both to be in such radiant form simultaneously. Both are hard to beat, scoring goals freely, and conveying a sense that they are overjoyed to be relishing their football like this.
The last time both Liverpool and Everton finished a season in the top four of English football was a quarter of a century ago (and to put it into context fourth place was no great shakes then). It was the summer of 1988, at the tail end of a decade dominated by Merseyside. The city provided eight champions during the 1980s (Liverpool with six titles and Everton two). Between them they also won four FA Cups. It would be rude not to throw in Liverpool’s pair of European Cups and Everton’s European Cup Winner’s Cup, too.
To football supporters of a certain age, it seems odd that Liverpool’s years of dominance mean little to a generation who have grown up on Manchester United, with flurries from Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City as they took turns as United’s main rivals. It is hard to underestimate how greatly Liverpool commanded the footballing landscape, to the point that if anyone in 1990 was told that they would not win another league for two decades and counting their response would almost certainly not have been repeatable.
Since then, they both enjoyed success in 2005, but it was a highly emotional and complicated situation. Everton pipped Liverpool to fourth place, and a Champions League qualification, only for the usual routine to be sent into flux as Liverpool went on to win the competition. The rules guarantee the champion gets entry to defend their title. There was a minor crisis as the suggestion emerged that Everton might have to make way to create a space for their neighbors. The Everton manager at the time, David Moyes, said there would have been “uproar” and such a scene would be a “disgrace”. In the end, after an appeal to the authorities, both were allowed into the Champions League.
There is still a long way to go, but on current form this is the best chance they have had since then to both stake a serious claim for a top four finish at least.
Liverpool’s confidence rocketed as they hit top spot over the weekend. What is notable is how the Luis Suarez effect is not just providing a collection of dazzling goals, it is also lifting all the players around him. The likes of Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling have improved beyond all expectation, while the creative Philippe Coutinho is increasingly influential.
Manchester City’s power is an obstacle that will be difficult for any other challenger to overcome. But that doesn’t seem to stop Liverpool from trying. While nobody can match City’s goal glut, Brendan Rodgers’s team are not exactly slouches in the scoring department. Since a chastening defeat at Hull on December 1st, they reacted to win their next four matches on the trot, scoring 17 goals in the process.
But now it is about to get serious. They clocked up those wins against troubled opponents – Norwich and West Ham are struggling, Tottenham and Cardiff were blown away as they tried to battle off-field problems. But their next two games are away from home at Manchester City and Chelsea. Instantly the difficulty level shoots up.
Everton have won four from their last five matches (the other was a very creditable draw at Arsenal), and have lost only once all season. They used to be renowned for their slow starts, only to pick up and finish strongly. If they can somehow keep up their outstanding start, they have every reason to believe they can break into the top four. Their next five Premier League games, taking them up to a Merseyside derby at the end of January, all look winnable.
Martinez is honing a special talent in Ross Barkley, who was stupendous once again as Everton saw off Swansea. The Everton coach is hoping to strengthen in January with another pearl or two.
Inspired loan signings look like something of a speciality. Martinez has noted that clubs abroad are keen to sound out Everton as the perfect place to park their young starlets to gain experience – the blend of competitiveness, and a commitment to a disciplined yet attractive style of football, makes Martinez and his club an excellent option. As Barcelona have seen with the talented Gerard Deulofeu, and Chelsea with Romelu Lukaku, young prospects who may not have enjoyed quite so much game time at the clubs who own them are flourishing. They play regularly, they are under pressure to perform, and they are rising to the challenge in an eye-catching way.
The burning question for Everton and Liverpool is how long this feel-good factor can last.