LONDON, ENGLAND – It used to be called the friendly derby but no more. Everton versus Liverpool ( live, Satuday, 7:45 a.m. ET ), despite the studious nature of the respective coaches, should be fierce on and off the field as the Premier League resumes after the international break. The crowd will make it so.
The days of jolly banter, of cars rocking to the stadium with blue scarves trailing from the windows on one side and red from the other, are all but gone. So prevalent were mixed football families on Merseyside that, at various times, it was suggested that the clubs should share a sparkling new home. Regional and local government offered support. And the fans on both sides said no. Very firmly.
I guess it had all begun to change in 1985, when an aggressive stampede by Liverpool followers at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, before the European Cup final against Juventus led to the deaths of 39 fans of the Italian club. A relatively minor consequence of that was that English teams were banned from European competition -- including Everton, who would have entered as England's champions.
So we never found out just how good that Everton team of Howard Kendall's was. It won another English title in 1987 but subsequently faded as key players were lost -- Trevor Steven eventually found European football, first with Rangers in Scotland and then Olympique Marseille -- and when English clubs returned to Europe, Liverpool had been re-established as Merseyside's leading force.
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If you were top dog on Merseyside then, you had a pretty good chance of ruling England. Again, no more. The last time Liverpool won the League was under Kenny Dalglish in 1990 and, although the club came second under Gerard Houllier in 2002 and again under Rafa Benitez in 2009, it still must come from behind the giants of both Manchester and London if the title is to be retrieved.
For the time being coach Brendan Rodgers' priority is to get Liverpool back into the Champions League , to increase the club's revenue and make it easier to attract the caliber of player required. Of course the Champions League means a lot on its own -- the fans can still crow to their Manchester United counterparts that the triumph under Benitez in Istanbul in 2005 was European title No. 5 -- but it's also a key to Premier League elite status.
A complication is that Everton wants that as well. The blues may have a slightly smaller stadium than the reds -- it's even more old-fashioned -- but Everton made great strides in more than a decade under David Moyes and successor Roberto Martinez is determined to carry on his work with that final step up to Europe's top level.
With so much attention being given to Liverpool's rise to second place in the Premier League, and the prolific strike partnership of Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez, many people tend to overlook that Everton, in sixth, lies only three points behind. And with the grand reopening of the Premier League this weekend at Goodison Park, Martinez's players will have the advantage of majority support as they hope to close the gap.
It's that kind of season. Only eight points separate leaders Arsenal from Manchester City in eighth place, so every big game can make a big difference. Southampton , for instance, can draw level on points with Arsenal by winning at the Emirates -- and don't rule it out, for the South Coast team have already inflicted defeat on Liverpool at Anfield as well as holding Manchester United at Old Trafford.
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Southampton under Mauricio Pochetino, with its group of young Englishmen led by Adam Lallana -- one of the few to emerge with credit from the country's home defeats by Chile and Germany -- look set to make at least the impact this season as Swansea City did last. For Arsene Wenger and his team, honorable losers at Manchester United before the break, this is another tough one.
Their fellow north Londoners from Tottenham Hotspur face quite a challenge too for, although Manchester City's poor away form has let them down in the first third of Manuel Pellegrini's debut season in charge, the erstwhile champions remain often majestic at home.
Spurs, having compensated for the loss of Gareth Bale by increasing the depth of their squad, may be glad of it now attacking midfielder Christian Eriksen is out for at least a month due to an injury picked up on Denmark duty. Lewis Holtby and Gylfi Sigurdsson are capable of filling the role behind the main striker and so one of them will have a chance to improve a low scoring record that must worry coach Andre Villas-Boas, who invested a lot in striker Roberto Soldado.
On Merseyside we'll see currently the best pair of strikers in the business -- eight League goals each have come from Sturridge and Suarez, even though the latter began the season under suspension -- and their every move will meet a wall of hostility. Welcome to the Mersey derby. And welcome back to the passion of the Premier League.