Liverpool’s eight successive league wins – all with clean sheets – is their best run since the 1990-91 season. The clean sheets part of the run means the Reds have equalled another club record, matching the eight consecutive clean sheets collected way back in 1923. It’s also their best start in the league since it became known as the Premiership, and they are ten points better off than they were at this point last year.
Even without all of these stats, it’s clear to any Liverpool supporter that the Reds are making excellent progress. The team that became European Champions in May has been improved, not just by having a couple of new faces, but in their attitude and belief. Tonight sees the Reds make the short trip across the park to face local rivals Everton in a match that will be used by many fans as a true test of progress.
Everton have just lost two games in a row by a margin of four goals to nil. After hailing him as “The Moyesiah” just months ago, the supporters of the so-called “People’s Club” are now calling for the head of manager David Moyes as the “Moyeseyslide” continues to gather pace. On paper it’s a formality – struggling Everton to be beaten by rampant Liverpool. In reality though, this is a derby match, a real banana skin for the Reds, and manager Rafael Benitez is well aware of how easy it will be to fall into a trap of thinking the game is already won.
Rafa wants his team to keep the momentum going. He says they’ve improved with every game, and must continue to improve if they are to reach the levels he requires: “The team is improving week after week and now I want to see that continuing right to the end. We should have won by more against Newcastle. In the first half we created a lot of chances and did not concede. We did not give them any opportunities and in the second half against 10 men and two ahead we could have scored more.”
Michael Owen was frozen out of the game at Anfield on Boxing Day, although there’s no doubt he’d have got a decent number of chances to put away had he been in a red shirt. Rafa says one aspect to the game at Boxing Day that perhaps made the Reds take the foot off the gas was the anticipation of tonight’s game: “We were thinking about the next game against Everton. I am happy with the performance of the team but it could be better still. We have confidence; we are scoring goals and winning games. That is good for all of us, but we could have finished the Newcastle game a lot earlier. We needed to score again so we could change players around but we did not manage that. We created a lot of chances. We needed the third to finish it and we could think about the next game.”
In the end the actions of Lee Bowyer gave Rafa the chance to make some substitutions: “I only decided to change players and rest them after Lee Bowyer was sent off, that made it easier for me. I was not worried about reaction to our trip to Japan; the team was fit and hungry and wanted to win. We wanted to score goals and it was a good performance.”
Rafa gave some praise to Newcastle’s Irish international goalkeeper too for keeping the scoreline down to 2-0: “Their ‘keeper, Shay Given, did very well, he kept the score down. But we won again and did not concede. That makes me happy. If you play as well as we are and keep clean sheets then you will win and take a lot of points.”
The last Merseyside derby, at Anfield, saw Everton do all they could to kick Liverpool off the park. By half-time Liverpool had already been forced into making all three substitutions, and Luis Garcia was forced to play through the pain barrier as the Reds had no more replacements available. Milan Baros was later sent off in the game following a mistimed challenge, which had been clumsy rather than malicious, although that didn’t stop the Blues from trying to make it out to be much worse than it was.
Everton fans have watched with despair as their year has gone downhill at alarming rate. Starting off under the misconception that they were in the Champions League (they were actually in the qualifiers, and were knocked straight out of those), the Blues were hoping for another season where they had a high finish in the league. Even their UEFA Cup run was short – again knocked straight out. In the league they are now just three points above the relegation places. All of this makes for a lot of material for the Reds fans to sing about, in what used to be known as “the friendly derby”. It’s up to the Reds players to concentrate hard and not to be drawn in by Everton’s likely rough-house tactics to ensure those songs are sung to the very end of today’s game. Rafa feels they are ready: “We have confidence now going into the derby. We aim to play as well as possible and have every intention to win.”