Confusion reigns as Liverpool back Everton
It began as a hypothetical, grew into an increasingly likely possibility and is now the major talking point on Merseyside. Will Everton inadvertently assist Liverpool’s title bid against Man City on the penultimate weekend of the season?
Roberto Martínez’s only interest will be for Everton to help themselves, the consequences for his neighbours of fleeting significance compared to the chase for a Champions League place, but the aspirations of both clubs are now inextricably linked.
Arsenal are favourites to secure fourth but it won’t be mathematically certain by Saturday evening. Even if Martínez does not catch Arsène Wenger he will crave the minimum of a Europa League place for his sterling work in his first season at Goodison Park.
The suggestion Martínez and his players will desire anything but three points is an insult and underestimates their professionalism.
Everton’s desire to bridge the gap to the top four is such that European qualification would be a significant first step, and what it means for Liverpool – by no means guaranteed victory in their remaining games anyway – is a side effect.
The view of the Everton fans could be rather more ambiguous, depending on results between now and then. It remains a somewhat fluid situation.
Until their side’s defeat to Southampton and Liverpool’s loss to Chelsea last weekend there was little to debate. Nobody at Goodison would sacrifice a potential £30 million prize – and the riches of elite European status – on the presumption Liverpool would not win their remaining games and win the Premier League. If that had happened, it would not have been due to City’s defeat at Anfield, not the outcome at Goodison Park.
What’s changed is the knowledge anything but a City victory means the title is back in Brendan Rodgers’ hands. Beneath the various mathematical equations, a broadly similar view prevails but it could shift between now and kick off if the season’s target has already been achieved.
Spurs and Manchester United can still catch Everton and turn what has been an excellent season for Martínez into little more than a par score. Both clubs play before Everton get under way against City. If Everton were already certain of finishing at least fifth it’s a safe presumption the fans’ tolerance of defeat would be enhanced. At the very least, there would be more cause for ambivalence.
Evertonians have no cause to feel guilty about this. Liverpool fans have become accustomed to similar feelings of apathy when it comes to fixtures that had more significance for their rivals than themselves.
They felt exactly the same in 1995 when, with nothing to play for, they beat Blackburn Rovers 2-1 in the final game of the season and Jamie Redknapp’s late winner was the least celebrated in Anfield history. Only when it emerged seconds later Manchester United had failed to beat West Ham United and Blackburn still won the league did the cheers follow.
Liverpool were in a similar situation in 1991, playing out a dour 0-0 draw at home to Leeds United when neither side could muster a shot of note, the hosts worried a win would end Manchester United’s title drought.
Former Everton striker Andy Gray summed up the supporters’ view on Talksport on Monday.
“Peter Reid and I were talking about it last night and we think maybe Evertonians for once in their life may not be too upset if they get beat this week,” said Gray.
“The players will try and do their job the best they can but I've got a funny feeling many thousand Evertonians, for one week only, will not mind if they lose the game.”
Everton’s problem won’t be lack of commitment on the pitch but lack of personnel.
Leighton Baines needs a scan on knee and calf injuries, while Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka have been nursing hamstring problems. Kevin Mirallas’ season is already over, and Gareth Barry – on loan from City – is ineligible.
City’s record at Goodison is not great, however, the Merseysiders’ somewhat of a bogey side.
The task for City is straightforward. If they win their remaining games against Everton, Aston Villa and West Ham, Liverpool would need to notch up cricket scores against Crystal Palace and Newcastle or they will lose the title on goal difference.
If City fail to win one game and Liverpool win both theirs, the title goes to Anfield.
Chelsea need both Liverpool and City to lose one more game to have any chance of overtaking them.
The likelihood is the race will now go to the final day as it did in 2012 when, by winning their last four games, City took the title on goal difference.