Premier League echoes to rising clamour of resurgent Mersey beat
Liverpool’s Red and Blue traditions are enjoying the thrill of success once again
Brendan Rodgers: Anfield rebuilding project is exceeding expectations; in March five wins, five games. Photograph: Peter Powell/EPA
It has the makings of another marvellous Merseyside Sunday. As Liverpool, leaders of the Premier League, travel to Upton Park, Everton will offer a difficult welcome to Arsenal at Goodison Park.
The Mersey is rising, rising with the solid mass of results and the belief and expectation that flows from those. The city of Liverpool, an increasing number think, will have half the Premier League’s Champions League clubs next season.
Given that neither club kicked a ball in Europe this season, not even the Europa League, that would represent one great leap forward. Liverpool have 10 points more than last season’s total already and while Everton have three points less, they have seven games to play. On Merseyside those are statistics to seize, and much March gladness is cause and effect.
Liverpool began March in fourth place in the league, four points off leaders Chelsea; Liverpool ended March top, two points clear of Chelsea.
March marked an early harvest for Brendan Rodgers: five games, five wins. Liverpool scored 16 goals and conceded four. They travelled to Southampton and won 3-0, then to Manchester United and won 3-0. They scored six against Cardiff and four against Tottenham.
Champions League target
The only squeaky performance was at home to Sunderland. But Liverpool still won. If Liverpool triumph in May, it will be March, when results and confidence accelerated, that Rodgers will look back on.
Roberto Martinez may think the same. Should Everton maintain their progress and qualify for the Champions League for only the second time – under David Moyes Everton finished fourth in 2005 with 61 points – then Martinez will be able to reflect on a mighty March.
It began with Everton in seventh place. They trailed fourth-place Liverpool by 11 points and Arsenal, second, by 14. Then Everton beat West Ham, Cardiff, Swansea, Newcastle and, last Sunday, Fulham. Now they are fifth, four points behind Arsenal with a game in hand. Everton’s running total of 60 points compares favourably with 2005.
The two big Liverpudlian clubs accumulated 10 wins from 10 in a month that altered perspectives everywhere. The geography of the Premier League was being reordered. Mancunian dominance was already withering due to United’s extraordinary season and in London, Arsenal and Tottenham were experiencing some kind of malaise. Arsenal won one league game in March, at Tottenham.
Arsenal beat Everton in the FA Cup, 4-1, but tomorrow feels different and Arsenal would probably settle for the 1-1 achieved last season at Goodison, though they will again be without the man who scored the goal, Theo Walcott.
Old Goodison Park is sure to be boisterous. Before Everton’s first home game this season, their first at home since Moyes departed, Martinez sat in a side room at the club’s Finch Farm training ground. He was looking forward to his debut as Goodison Park’s manager, he considered its history, its atmospherics and described the stadium as “a feeling”.
It was an interesting remark in different ways. It contained a hefty chunk of romance, and no fan base snubs flattery. But it was also vague, a sense of the intangible from a young manager – he had just turned 40 – who is known for his valuation of detail. Martinez was not talking about formations or tactics, but feelings.
Last week Gary Neville said the same about Liverpool. After Spurs were trounced last Sunday, he said of Liverpool: “Something’s happening.”
Again, the vagueness will not have pleased the tactics pedants, but you could appreciate what Neville meant. He said at Manchester United there came a time when self-perception changed. Going for the league title, said Neville “you used to sense it and there was a moment where you thought it. There’s almost a belief and a spirit that hits you.”
Maybe last Sunday, against Tottenham and Fulham respectively, that happened to Liverpool and Everton. But if that was the epiphany, there was a process that built towards it.
It was in February that Tim Howard contrasted the approaches, mental and physical, of Moyes and Martinez. Now, said Howard “we work on ourselves and it’s a difference. We’ll train on trying to exploit them, as opposed to, ‘here is what they are going to do to hurt us and this is what we are going to do to defend against them.’ ”
To Moyes, in black and white, that must look a harsh assessment. Yet it is evidence of a significant change Everton players see in their team and their club, a change replicated at Anfield. Both Merseyside clubs proved that much in March and it will be telling if Everton defeat Arsenal because for all the Goodison feeling, Arsenal have not lost there in seven years.
One test provided by the Premier League season is stamina and events at Aintree on Saturday will ensure this is a theme that carries on into Sunday. After such a March, Liverpool and Everton feel strong. April will tell if they have the legs and lungs to match their rising senses.