Results in the past week may have given Brendan Rodgers some breathing room, but he will be well aware that the pressure will grow more intense than ever should Liverpool falter in Sunday’s visit to Everton. There is little that can rile supporter unrest quite like a derby defeat, and with managers of the caliber of Carlo Ancelotti and Jurgen Klopp waiting in the wings, defeat could be hard to recover from.
After a 3-2 win over over a struggling Aston Villa last weekend, Rodgers took the chance to hit back at his critics. Calling the speculation over his future “hysteria,” the Northern Irishman even suggested there was a campaign against him “from a group of people that don’t want me here.”
Regardless of the validity of those claims, they were perhaps far from the wisest way to reflect upon what has still been a poor start to the campaign. Rodgers was at pains to point out that Liverpool are only five points off the top of the table, having lost fewer games in all competitions than Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea. But that represents a desperate bending of statistics. For a manager who has a history of trying to boost his reputation up in the press, it is now time to focus on delivering on the pitch.
And for the former Swansea boss the first stage must be demonstrating that Liverpool are not a team set for yet another long season of transition without a defines style of play. While tactical flexibility is an extremely useful skill to possess at the highest level and Rodgers clearly has many talents as a coach, an identity and a sense of stability remain frustratingly elusive.
At least for the time being, though, Rodgers’ best hope of staying in his job may well be the contributions of star individuals. Philippe Coutinho continues to be capable of moments of brilliance, while last Saturday saw Daniel Sturridge announce his return from injury with two expert finishes. It was no surprise that both he and Coutinho were left on the sidelines for Thursday’s Europa League draw with Swiss club FC Sion. Rodgers will be fully aware that it is the derby that will be far more important when any decision is made over whether to retain his services.
Sturridge could be crucial to that. Injuries have prevented the striker form having a real run in the team since Liverpool went a whisker away from winning the Premier League title in 2014. And Rodgers can argue, especially if their form now begins to turnaround, that the struggles over the past year should be viewed more favorably in light of him being denied the chance to field his strongest team.
He may not, though, get a chance to make that case. Everton similarly took a step backward last season, but come into the 225th Merseyside derby in more confident mood. Traditionally cast into the shadows in the city of Liverpool, Everton have been beaten by only Manchester City in seven matches this season and sit a point above their local rivals in fifth place in the Premier League.
On Monday, they needed all their powers of resilience to extend their unbeaten run to six matches in all competitions. Trailing 2-0 to West Brom with 35 minutes remaining, Everton fought back thanks to two goals and an assist from the in-form Romelu Lukaku.
For much of last season the young Belgian struggled to justify the huge £28 million fee Everton paid to bring him in for Chelsea. But of late there has been evidence of Everton playing more to his strengths, particularly with Gerard Deulofeu’s two pinpoint crosses to supply the 22-year-old on Monday. And Liverpool and Rodgers will need no extra reason to be wary of Lukaku’s threat, having seen him score twice in his first Merseyside derby, a thrilling 3-3 draw in 2013.
Prediction: Rodgers has yet to taste defeat in his six Merseyside derbies, coming away with a point on all three previous visits to Goodison Park. His acumen, however, will be tested more than ever on Sunday. Liverpool’s defense could be ripe for a Lukaku assault and, while the last meeting between the sides finished scoreless, there should be goals on this occasion. Everton’s backline also remains vulnerable and Coutinho has the ability to find gaps in the midfield and pick passes through to Sturridge. An entertaining draw may be on the cards.
Predicted score: Everton 2-2 Liverpool
Everton: Robert Martinez has doubts over the fitness of John Stones, Seamus Coleman and Muhamed Besic. Leighton Baines, Tom Cleverley, and Steven Pienaar are sidelined for the longer term.
Liverpool: Christian Benteke remains an injury doubt with a hamstring injury, while Dejan Lovren, Jordan Henderson and Roberto Firmino are all definitely ruled out.