For years now Everton Football Club have always been looked on as the inferior team on Merseyside. Their neighbours Liverpool have a Global brand, millions of supporters worldwide and the history and finances a club like Everton can only dream of. Five times Champions of Europe, 18 times Champions of England, they are one of the most prestigious clubs in the World and with good reason.
However, as both teams look towards a critical Merseyside derby on Sunday, the 220th meeting between the two sides, things have become much different.
Under Manager David Moyes, Everton have gradually progressed year-on-year and are now considered to be contenders for the European places consistently every season. Under the guidance of Moyes, Everton have qualified for the EUROPA Cup in three out of the last six seasons. This is a remarkable achievement when you consider the financial restrains Moyes is working under. It is no secret that Chairman Bill Kenwright is looking to sell the club and has wanted to do so for an considerable amount of time now. He has so far been unable to find a suitable buyer which has limited David Moyes' options in the transfer market tremendously. He has had to scour the market for bargain deals for relatively unknown players and it is a testament to him and his scouting department that they continue to unearth gems every season. The larger clubs with more financial firepower have looked to Everton's players throughout the years to improve their squads and no doubt this summer will be no different. It must be extremely frustrating for their fans and Moyes himself that if a substantial offer comes in for one of their star players then Everton aren't in a financial position to refuse it. What Moyes has done extremely well is utilize the money he has given to him and has assembled a squad of players capable of beating any team in the Premier League on their day. It is this model of doing business that has landed Everton in a position to achieve European qualification again this season, which would provide the club with a much-needed financial boost.
Everton have had a fantastic season by anybody's standards and nobody would deny they wouldn't deserve a European place if they were to get one. A big part of their success has been team spirit. This is a small, close-knit squad of players and their work ethic and unity comes across in every game. That's not to say they don't have a star or two in their midst. After an outstanding season, left-back Leighton Baines now has a legitimate claim to being England's best at the position, which has long been held by Chelsea's Ashley Cole. The statistics back up just how important Baines is to Everton Football Club. in 49 games this season Baines has 8 goals, 9 assists, has just four cautions to his name and has provided more accurate crosses (49) than anybody in the Premier League this season. He is a demon at set pieces and has scored some sensational goals from free-kicks during the course of the campaign. There is speculation that a big money move could be on the cards for him during the summer, possibly to newly crowned Champions Manchester United. Getting into Europe would be a great asset in trying to keep hold of Baines at the seasons conclusion.
Their midfield has been the main factor in the continued success on the field this season. In Marouane Fellaini they have a stereotypical maverick who on his day is absolutely unplayable. His is extremely temperamental and often lets his emotions get the better of him on the pitch but Moyes has done an adequate job of controlling his aggression this season long enough for him to be a key figure in Everton's success. In 39 games so far this season Fellaini has 12 goals, 7 assists, 12 cautions and most importantly no red cards. Everton's first home game against Manchester United back in August showed everyone just what Fellaini was capable of when his head is right. He tormented United's defence and scored the only goal in a 1-0 victory. It was without question one of the finest individual performances of another stellar season in the League. The fans have been critical of Fellaini's work-rate towards the end of the season and seem to be increasingly frustrated with his petulance, overall though he can be extremely satisfied with how the season has gone for him. One thing is for sure, if a reported £30 million move to Chelsea does go through in the summer, Everton will have big shoes to fill.
When Everton sold Mikel Arteta to Arsenal for £10 million at the end of the 2011 summer transfer window, everybody within the game expected Everton to struggle in his absence. In reality, they haven't missed a beat. The main reason for this has been the outstanding Leon Osman. Osman is a quiet character who doesn't look for the limelight or praise, he is just a solid professional and a superb role model for youngsters in how to approach the game. Osman has been getting the acclaim his play has long been deserving of this season, which has resulted in his first England cap at the age of 31. He has dispelled the myth that he would be a 'one-cap wonder' and is now considered a long-term part of Roy Hodgson's England setup. Osman has played 41 times in all competitions this season, scoring 8 times and assisting in 2. He is the heart and soul of Everton and one of their standout performers of the season. He will be looked to again on Sunday to provide a calming influence in the centre of the park and initiate Everton's dangerous counter attacks at any given opportunity.
Coming into this game, Everton lie in 6th position, 3 points behind Tottenham Hotspur in 5th. What will probably be more important to their fans is they are currently five points ahead of Liverpool. European qualification would obviously mean the world to this club, but finishing above their rivals would be a massive statement. When you consider the resources available to both clubs, it is a real surprise to see Everton so far ahead of them in the table. Whether Liverpool are going through ab transition period or not is irrelevant. Everton fans haven't had many years where they have finished ahead of their city counterparts and finishing ahead of them for the second season in a row would indicate that the balance of power has indeed shifted in the city of Liverpool. That will no doubt be extremely satisfying for Moyes, who continues to be looked over for the high-profile jobs in the game despite working miracles on a shoestring budget. If Moyes were to stay, then the future will continue to look very bright at Everton, providing they can keep hold of the nucleus of their squad together.
The story across Stanley Park is a completely different one. Liverpool, under owner John Henry, who also owns Major League Baseball's Boston Red Sox, have spent a fortune over the last few seasons trying to get this once proud club back to prominence. Under the previous regime it was the same, and the money has not been spent wisely. Kenny Dalglish, a Liverpool landmark and club icon, was widely criticized for his dealings in the transfer market which was a big factor in his removal as Manager in May 2012. In particular in signings of Andy Carroll for an extortionate £35 million, and Jordan Henderson for £20 million, beggared belief. Carroll is now on loan at West Ham United and Henderson is still trying to find his feet in the Liverpool side. Dalglish's replacement, former Swansea Manager Brendan Rodgers, was brought into the club to totally revamp it. His passing style of football at Swansea was hailed throughout the game and Liverpool wanted Rodgers to implement this style into their system. He has had a reasonable amount of success but as every Liverpool fan knows, the problems at the club were significant and there was bound to be some teething problems. Rodgers did do a good job of removing ageing stars and fringe players from the wage bill (Dirk Kuyt, Craig Bellamy, Joe Cole). His own dealings in the transfer market have been met with skepticism. Fabio Borini, a £10.4 million arrival from Roma, was a former Rodgers player at Swansea and was expected to be a key figure this season. Due to injuries and a lack of form this just hasn't been the case. Joe Allen was brought in from Rodgers' former club Swansea for £12 million and it was hoped he would smooth the transition of style of play for this team. After a promising start he seems to have faded as the season has gone on and looks in desperate need of the upcoming holiday he will no doubt have already booked.
One of Rodgers' success stories in the Transfer Market is undoubtedly Daniel Sturridge. Sturridge, a £12 million signing from Chelsea, has been an enigmatic talent throughout his career. There is no doubt he has skills, but what's most frustrating about Sturridge is that he probably knows how good he is too. He has been accused of lacking commitment and hasn't always put his gifts to the best use. This all seems to be behind him now and since his arrival on Merseyside he has been a revelation. He has instantly become a fans favourite and has formed an incredible understanding with Luis Suarez given the short time they have spent together. He has been used sparingly by Rodgers at times as he looks for ways to fully integrate him into the lineup. As the season has progressed, it has become abundantly clear that Sturridge is Liverpool's main goal threat when Suarez is unavailable. a return of 8 goals in 13 appearances would indicate he has a colossal part to play when the two sides meet at Anfield on Sunday.
This is normally a heated affair and even though the Hillsborough revelations have unified the two teams over the last season, there is still an underlying hatred between the two clubs. There will be nobody on the field on Sunday this game means more to than Liverpool and England Captain Steven Gerrard. Gerrard has been the lifeblood of Liverpool Football Club from a very early age and typifies everything the club stands for. Hard-working, loyal and driven, Gerrard has won everything there is to win at club level barring the elusive Premier League trophy, something he realistically won't have a chance of winning now. He has been a thorn in Everton's side throughout the years and is a magnet for abuse from their fans. Even though he is approaching 33 years old, Gerrard has still been one of Liverpool's finest performers throughout the season. He has, as always, led by example and has stayed injury free for the first season in recent memory. In 43 games this season he has scored 10 goals and has laid on another 11 for his teammates while playing in a deeper role. Losing to Everton stings more than any other defeat for the local boy from Whiston. It is too late to do anything about another season of underachievement at Anfield. However, Gerrard will be looking to get some local bragging rights for their fans in another season of failure.
While Rodgers will be given time to turn things round at Liverpool, there is no denying this seasons underachievement will put added pressure on Rodgers next season. Foreign owners are not renowned for their patience and if they were to lose this game and finish below Everton they will no doubt be bringing Rodgers in to talk about the future. This was never going to be a quick fix at Liverpool given all the problems at the club and in Rodgers' defence Liverpool have looked frighteningly good at times this season. Whether the funds will be there to strengthen in the summer is another matter. Liverpool have been frivolous spenders over the years and Henry himself has indicated it might be time to tighten up when it come to the spending. Rodgers will once again have to decide who is surplus to requirements as he prepares to finance his own deals. These are deals he must get right as another season of abject failure and wasted opportunities will not sit well with the Liverpool hierachy.
It cannot be understated the importance of Luis Suarez's absence from this game. This will be game number 2 of Suarez's 10 game suspension for biting Branislav Ivanovic on the arm against Chelsea and he will be greatly missed. Suarez has carried Liverpool on his back for the majority of the season and one can only speculate just where Liverpool would be without him. With an astonishing 30 goals in 40 appearances this season, his loss to this fixture could be just what Everton need to tip the scales in their favor. Liverpool didn't seem to miss Suarez much against Newcastle last weekend, demolishing them 6-0 at St. James Park and showing a ruthlessness that had been sorely missing throughout much of the season. Everton are a much more resilient outfit that relegation-threatened Newcastle and will have taken note of that performance and certainly won't be taking Liverpool lightly. There is no denying that Everton's chances have significantly improved due to the loss of the controversial figure from Argentina.
Everton themselves have been struggling for goals lately and their away form has been very poor. They have failed to win any of their last 6 away games and the cauldron at Anfield wouldn't be the ideal place to go looking for one. Most media pundits state that form goes out of the window in Derby games, they are one-off occasions that are full of blood, sweat and tears. The fans demand nothing but one hundred percent from every player and will let them know if they are not pulling their weight. Everton will look to the rejuvenated Victor Anichebe to lead the line and come up with a timely goal to boost his growing reputation. Anichebe has often drawn comparisons to a former Liverpool striker, Emile Heskey, and it's not hard to see why. Over the years he has looked a forlorn figure and has drove his Manager to the brink of insanity, some would even argue that he luck to still be at Everton. Finally though, the penny seems to have finally dropped and Anichebe has been an imposing threat leading Everton's line as of late. He will be looking to take advantage of the vulnerable Jamie Carragher, who despite his undoubted effort, just doesn't have what it takes to be a Premier League defender anymore. Everton and Anichebe will look to exploit this as they look for the victory that will guarantee they finish above their fiercest rivals once again.
If previous meetings are anything to go by, it is sure to be frantic, fiercely contested and with no shortage of controversy.
For everyone involved at Everton Football Club, there is far more at stake than just local pride.
Dean Jones: Follow me on Twitter @DeanJones_