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Evertonians of a glass-completely-empty persuasion envisaged a doomsday scenario when Farhad Moshiri appointed Rafael Benítez five months ago. It went something like this: fragile support for the new manager erodes along with the team’s form before the Merseyside derby, Liverpool inflict further punishment, the atmosphere turns poisonous and Benítez’s name is sung for the first time since his arrival but only by 2,902 away fans in the Bullens Road stand as they also reminisce about Istanbul. Everton’s board shields its own dreadful performances behind an unpopular manager, and on and on it goes …
It is a derby, anything can happen (though eight of the past nine league meetings at Goodison have ended in draws) but any or all of the above occurring on Wednesday would come as no great surprise. “It is a massive game for us,” said a more positive Benítez. “It is an opportunity for us to change things and improve everything for the rest of the season.”
“Agent Rafa” and “BenítezOut” were trending after Everton’s defeat at Brentford on Sunday, reflecting the polarised takes on the former Liverpool manager’s employment across Stanley Park. A performance lacking energy, quality or a discernible gameplan made it seven matches and two calendar months without a win for Benítez’s team.
The absence of Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Richarlison and Yerry Mina provided no excuse and, as the mass of v-signs from an irate travelling support to Everton’s players signalled after the final whistle, patience has snapped before the arrival of a rampant Liverpool team with collective and individual incentive to avenge last season’s damaging encounter at Goodison.
Patience had taken a battering before Benítez’s controversial appointment, with woeful recruitment and mismanagement under Moshiri the root cause. The manager spent £1.7m in his first transfer window as Everton navigated Premier League profit and sustainability rules.
He has been beset by long-term injury problems and told there is no transformational budget available in January. But with performances such as Sunday’s – when he again persevered with Salomón Rondón – a long winless run, Goodison restless and a daunting fixture list ahead, Benítez must hope Everton’s majority shareholder holds his nerve and resists any clamour for further managerial upheaval. It is the last thing Everton need.
“I am in constant communication with the board and Mr Moshiri so I have the feeling that they realise that they were changing managers in the past – even changing the profile of the managers in the past – and it was not working,” Benítez said. “They know we need stability and they know that is really important for changing things in the future.
“You can’t blame the owner for spending a lot of money. It is just that we have to be sure we do things right in the future and the reason why we can’t spend now is because the Premier League rules don’t allow us to do that. So hopefully we can manage in a better way, we can sell some players at a profit and we can use this money to improve the squad and ensure we are stronger.”
Benítez’s admission that players may have to be sold at profit is another indication that Everton, having spent over £500m for little return since Moshiri’s arrival, must continue to live within their means while work continues on a new stadium at Bramley-Moore Dock. “Some clubs have been selling players at the right time and with the money they received they improved the squad,” the manager elaborated.
“That is something we have to learn. The owner is ready to spend money but we can’t spend all the time without bringing money back in. We have to be clever in the future but at the moment we have to make sure we can bring the best out of our players.”
Pressure on the Everton manager is not the only subplot to the 239th Merseyside derby, of course. Virgil van Dijk will be making his first appearance at Goodison since sustaining a season-ending knee injury in last October’s 2-2 draw, a game that also left Thiago Alcântara sidelined after a foul by Richarlison and saw Jordan Henderson denied a 92nd-minute winner by VAR.
Jürgen Klopp admitted after Saturday’s 4-0 defeat of Southampton that he disliked the physical intensity of the Merseyside derby, but was in no mood to stoke any flames during an unusually brief press conference on Tuesday. “I cannot help you with the stories you want to write today,” he said.
Klopp conceded that, for Van Dijk, the derby “might be different because it is the same place, but apart from that it is just a football game”. Otherwise, the Liverpool manager’s message to his prolific team was to park emotion and focus on what has brought them 39 goals in 13 league games so far, the club’s highest tally at this stage of a top-flight campaign.
“I think we were the fairest team in England and most of the time the fairest team in Europe in the last five years,” said Klopp. “It is obviously not a prize somebody wants to win, but it is still the case. If you play pressing, high press, counter-press, the plan is to win the ball and to win the ball you have to touch the ball. That is why it is normal we don’t make fouls really, or a lot of fouls, because it ruins our game. You want to win the ball in the right way and you want to play it from there.”
Benítez was asked how he would feel if Liverpool fans sing his name at Goodison. “The fans know me, they appreciate what I have done over there and now they also appreciate I’m a Blue,” he replied. “I want to win and I will try to win.”