A year is a long time in football and nothing highlights how quickly things can change better than the atmosphere on Merseyside going into this weekend’s derby.
Twelve months ago Liverpool were surging towards their first league title in 30 years, winning game after game as they blew away every team put in front of them.
At this point of 2019-20, Jurgen Klopp’s faultless Reds had won 23 of 24 matches and drawn one. They were 19 points clear of Manchester City and had pretty much guaranteed a top four finish by February.
Liverpool meet rivals Everton on Saturday needing a win to kickstart their top four push
Everton have their best opportunity for years to secure European football for next season
HOW THINGS HAVE CHANGED
This stage in 2019-20:
1. Liverpool – 23 wins, 70 points
12. Everton – 8 wins, 30 points
This stage in 2020-21:
6. Liverpool – 11 wins, 40 points
7. Everton – 11 wins, 37 points
On the other side of Stanley Park, Everton were in disarray. The difference between the local rivals was a staggering 40 points after 24 Premier League games with the Toffees languishing in 12th place.
Marco Silva lost his job after an Anfield meltdown in December 2019, another blow in what had already been an awful start to the season.
Carlo Ancelotti was hired to finally bring some return on Farhad Moshiri’s investment and what a coup he has proven to be with their improvement a work in progress under the Italian.
Now a year on, the local bragging rights are certainly up for grabs on Saturday, although there is genuine concern that the Champions League may bypass Merseyside all together next season.
That seems remarkable after watching Liverpool completely dismantle RB Leipzig, one of the hottest teams in Europe right now, in the first leg of their last-16 tie in midweek.
But in the Premier League they are struggling and last weekend’s collapse at Leicester was the latest in a series of setbacks that have plagued Klopp’s bid to retain the title.
Liverpool ran riot when they met Everton at Anfield last season, scoring four first-half goals
Their injury woes have been well documented this season but, having already seemingly surrendered their title to City, they now face a genuine fight to finish in the top four and secure Champions League football next season.
Going into Saturday night’s Merseyside derby at Anfield, Liverpool are sixth and two points behind Chelsea in fourth and West Ham in fifth. Manchester United and Leicester are also above them in the race for top four.
Liverpool’s form poses a significant threat to the city’s chances of welcoming Champions League football. The Reds have been back in Europe’s top competition since 2017-18, meaning it has been three-and-a-half seasons since there was no Champions League action in the city.
But could Everton spring a surprise challenge?
They are in seventh and look like they are getting their act together after another summer of shrewd transfer business. With James Rodriguez, Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure in their ranks and Dominic Calvert-Lewin firing, they have their best chance to qualify for European football in years.
However, back-to-back defeats this week at home to Fulham and City have halted progress and dented their top four ambitions. It has left them five points off fourth with one game in hand.
But Merseyside could miss out on Champions League football for the first time since 2016
Everton’s absence from Europe is the next issue for Ancelotti to solve.
They have not played in the Champions League since losing in the qualifying rounds to Villarreal in 2005-06, while their last Europa League campaign ended in a group stage exit in 2017-18.
So while local bragging rights will be up for grabs again this weekend, both clubs need a win to boost their chances of a place among Europe’s elite for next season.
Controversy is never too far away from derby day but there is every reason to think this weekend’s game could reach boiling point after the chaos in the first meeting of the season.
Liverpool felt so aggrieved by the treatment they received from the officials at Goodison Park back in October that they took the extraordinary step of demanding explanations for decisions from the Premier League.
It all started in the sixth minute when Jordan Pickford smashed into Virgil van Dijk at the back post with a horror tackle that has left the Dutchman with a serious knee injury that has left him unable to play since.
Jordan Pickford’s reckless lunge on Virgil van Dijk after only six minutes had gone unpunished
A long VAR review chalked off the goal with Sadio Mane judged to have strayed narrowly off
It was a challenge that Peter Crouch said on BT Sport was ‘a potential leg-breaking tackle’ and ‘horrendous’, yet it went unpunished by referee Michael Oliver and VAR David Coote that day.
Klopp and his staff were then left seething in the final few seconds of the game when Jordan Henderson’s injury-time ‘winner’ was ruled out after VAR decided Sadio Mane was millimetres offside in the build-up.
TV replays were inconclusive at best and decisions that have followed over the course of the season have proved Everton were very, very lucky to come away with a point.
Between those two incidents was a typical Merseyside derby tackle from Richarlison on Thiago Alcantara. The Brazilian attacker was rightly shown a straight red card for the challenge that left the Liverpool midfielder on the treatment table for over a month.
Chris Kavanagh will be the man in the middle on Saturday and he will be hoping for a relatively low-key affair.
Jurgen Klopp (left) and Carlo Ancelotti (right) are facing a fight to secure European football
While Liverpool will want to get one over their local rivals, Klopp will see this as the perfect opportunity to build on the momentum of beating Leipzig and get his side’s home form back on track.
Anfield was a fortress until Burnley won there in January but Brighton and City have since won in front of the Kop, another contributing factor to Liverpool’s struggles this season.
But it has not been a happy hunting ground for Everton at all. They have not won across Stanley Park since a 1-0 league victory in September 1999 but Ancelotti will sense there has never been a better chance.
It is the probably the first derby in a long, long time that Liverpool are not favourites before a ball has been kicked.
The gap may have narrowed between Merseyside’s two biggest clubs this season but Saturday’s game presents both teams with a real chance to widen it again and push on for place in next season’s Champions League.