In the thick of the Anfield soap opera, which has brought to the sports pages of British newspapers the orgy of hairdresser's-chair gossip usually confined to the TV mags, Sunday's Merseyside derby has become a minor subplot. New England Sports Ventures' stop-start and now concluded takeover, Tom Hicks' desperate interventions, anguished supporters' pleas ... the chronic uncertainty of Liverpool's future has left barely a column inch for the soccer.
It's an understandable, even inevitable, shift of emphasis, but a shame when this is one of the biggest Merseyside derbies in a long time. Maybe even one of the most meaningful in its 213-match history. In April 2001, Liverpool made the short hop across Stanley Park to play a relegation-threatened Everton side while itself being dangerously off the Champions League pace, but it's not often that this meeting is a relegation six-pointer. In fact, it hasn't been since 1903-04.
Under-fire Liverpool manager Roy Hodgson is making all the right noises about the derby's prestige -- "Chelsea versus Fulham certainly doesn't compare ... only Milan and Glasgow can do that" -- but this match is difficult to frame in terms of bragging rights. Its value is amplified by the desperation of both sides to win at the same time as it is undermined by the league table, which has Everton at 17th and Liverpool at 18th, both on six points.
Nonetheless, a win would lift either side into the relative comfort of mid-table and offer the promise of renewed optimism for the campaign ahead. Everton has not been playing that badly, but it has struggled to find the net. For Liverpool, things are simpler: It really has been playing that badly.
On paper, this is a fantastic time for Everton to play host to its neighbor, which has rarely looked so ripe for the taking. In front of its own fans -- gone are the days when the crowd would unite as one Merseyside mass -- and having ruined Birmingham City's yearlong unbeaten home run with a 2-0 win last time out, it should be advantage blue.
But, as Everton fans will be only too aware, the form book is rarely a guide here. When Liverpool last visited, in November last year, it had just taken two points from nine and the relationship between the club's support and Rafael Benitez was faltering. Duly lifted, Everton dominated the match but couldn't find a way past an inspired Pepe Reina. Liverpool placed two shots on target and won 2-0. Liverpool was reduced to 10 men for most of the return leg at Anfield, but still won 1-0.
The problem this season for Everton manager David Moyes has been getting his front line right. Everton's collection of strikers, even at full strength, is wanting. This summer the manager brought in youngsters Jermaine Beckford and Magaye Gueye, untested at this level, and has shown little faith in either. That seems unlikely to change for a big match like this, and with Louis Saha and Victor Anichebe still injured, Ayegbeni Yakubu may have to lead the line alone again.
Not a bad option when he's in the form (and against a defense that's conceded seven goals in its last three league games), but Yakubu -- out of shape and out of sorts after an aborted move away this summer -- is still feeling his way into this season. Some fans are keen to see Moyes pair him with Beckford, easing the burden for both of them, but it's more likely that he'll hope Yakubu has turned a corner and load the midfield.
Johnny Heitinga has been used in a defensive midfield role so far but may have to drop back in the probable absence of Phil Jagielka (hamstring). That leaves a common sense central trio of Mikel Arteta, Marouane Fellaini and Tim Cahill, but Fellaini finished Belgium's match with Austria with a strained hamstring. Phil Neville wouldn't be many people's first choice, but he's an adequate replacement if needed. Everton's central midfield is rarely a pushover, however configured.
Where Moyes will be keen to get it right is out wide. Liverpool has shown a real lack of width and has fullbacks to encourage Everton forward in these areas. Steven Pienaar, who was Everton's standout player in the corresponding fixture last year, is still missing (groin), leaving a gap on the left, and Moyes hasn't settled on a long-term option down the right.
I rate Diniyar Bilyaletdinov down the left, but it's a lonely furrow I plow, it seems. Leon Osman played extremely well on the "wrong" side against Birmingham and should keep his place there, which opens up the right wing for Seamus Coleman. A little green for this fixture, perhaps, but his lack of fear when rampaging down the line may be more important than his defensive shortcomings.
As for Liverpool, Hodgson needs to select carefully across the middle, where Liverpool has offered a flawless demonstration of the problem with "square pegs in round holes" for much of the campaign. Liverpool has won eight of its last 10 matches at Goodison Park, and after this week, no Hollywood scriptwriter would want to stain that record. But it will take a major shift in performance level.
Players who can't rouse themselves for this match should be in short supply (and quickly removed). For the manager's part, it means round pegs. Both Lucas Leiva and Raul Meireles came back from international duty with a spotless report card (and the latter with a terrific long-range goal). They should start at the back of the midfield. Christian Poulsen doesn't need another opportunity to confirm his lack of presence and Meireles shouldn't find himself on the right wing again.
Hodgson knows he must attend to Everton left back Leighton Baines, whose superb deliveries have set up more than half of Cahill's last 14 goals and strikes for others besides. Given Glen Johnson's defensive frailty on the right of Liverpool's defense, and Dirk Kuyt's ankle injury, the temptation to field someone with Meireles' tenacity is clear. But his considerable all-around talents are wasted there.
Together, Lucas and Meireles give the middle bite and guile, allowing Steven Gerrard -- from whom Liverpool urgently need one of those performances -- to roam behind Fernando Torres and link the play in a fashion that has been noticeably absent thus far. That is, quickly and accurately.
Hodgson must trust the wings to players bought to play there. With Joe Cole and Milan Jovanovic operating either side of Gerrard (Cole on the right would need attentive marking and Jovanovic would give genuine width out left; both track back), Liverpool could play a pressing game instead of inviting the opposition on to it, as happened against Blackpool.
Instilling that change of approach is as important for Liverpool as any change of personnel. Hodgson hasn't set out a Liverpool side like the one above, and the manager has shown remarkable inertia by failing to make changes mid-game and repeatedly picking some of the weaker performers. Having paid $7.2 million for Poulsen, he seems determined to prove the Danes' worth, and Maxi Rodriguez is probably the likely starter on the right.
Both teams need to be steeled for a frantic start to a fixture that has included more red cards than any other Premier League meeting (19 since 1992). Defeat is unthinkable for each. There will be no space, no respite, and the first goal -- if it comes -- will do much to define the course of the match. It's a little early to say that these 90 minutes will define the course of the season to come for either side, but they will certainly do much to what is dreamed in the L4 postal code in the weeks to come.