17 October ~ Liverpool lie 18th in the table entering the weekend of the 214th Merseyside derby but Everton fans should treat with caution the notion that their team will start today's Goodison showdown as marginal favourites. After all, had either Wolves or West Ham won the game that finished 1-1 at Molineux yesterday, this would have been the first derby since 1899 with both Liverpool and Everton in the relegation places.
Moreover, when it comes to Merseyside's blue-v-red rivalry, schadenfreude is a dangerous sentiment for any Evertonian given our neighbours' ability to overshadow us for the best part of four decades now. As Guardian writer Paul Wilson noted in an excellent blog on Wednesday, the ultimate reminder, if one was necessary, came in 2005 when Everton finished above Liverpool for the first time in 18 years and then Istanbul happened.
It may be the product of deeply-ingrained pessimism but my mind has already played out the scenario whereby Liverpool, with Fernando Torres present and Phil Jagielka (among others) absent, celebrate the demise of the hated Hicks-Gillett regime with a cathartic victory on our patch. That remains to be seen, of course, but it does not help that Liverpool have won eight of the last ten Goodison league derbies – an unprecedented sequence, most of it on David Moyes's watch (hence Alan Hansen's suggestion that this Everton side have a "mental block" in derbies.
Yet amid the media frenzy surrounding the Anfield ownership saga, it should not be forgotten there is another team in Liverpool with as many worries as dreams. Everton need what would be a first home league victory pretty badly themselves. Four points from trips to Fulham and Birmingham before the break was decent enough, but a big win over Liverpool would boost belief levels at Goodison after another dismal start. Many Evertonians began this season with uncustomary optimism. Landon Donovan did not arrive but after Mikel Arteta, Leighton Baines, Tim Cahill and Jack Rodwell penned new contracts and Jagielka and Steven Pienaar stayed put too, there were high hopes Moyes's men could build on their run of two defeats in 24 league matches up to May.
Yet talk about the "best squad in Moyes's time" and "no more false starts" rang pretty hollow after three points from six games. The overriding reason is simple, of course: a damaging inability to find the net. It is not unreasonable to suggest that with a top-class striker Everton would have another five points and sit in the top six. Instead with Louis Saha back on the treatment table – that new contract last January looks increasingly unwise – and Yakubu's fitness and motivation also in question, Everton, despite some neat football, have badly lacked a cutting edge. (Of Jermaine Beckford, the kind reply is that he deserves time and patience.)
Given Everton's capacity for long unbeaten streaks under Moyes, it is too soon to surrender all optimism. Victory on Sunday would stir hope that they could yet push for Europe but the importance of some tangible progress this term cannot be overstated, hence the frustration of that Carling Cup defeat at Brentford. Without it – and with Goodison's coffers empty – how much longer can Moyes keep his better players (and himself) suitably motivated? Thinking positively, even a defeat might prove an unlikely spur – Everton did win 11 out of 13 matches after losing the "Mark Clattenburg" derby in October 2007, and went nine league games unbeaten after last November's unlucky 2-0 Goodison reverse. A straw ready to clutch at just in case. Simon Hart