Liverpool finally have the chance to recommence their Premier League title charge on Sunday when they make the short trip across Stanley Park to take on Everton in the 287th Merseyside derby.
The Reds arrive at Goodison Park with a 22-point lead at the top of the table and knowing that just two more wins will be enough to wrap up a first top-flight crown since 1990.
After 30 years of waiting, Liverpool fans have had to be patient for a few months longer than expected as the coronavirus pandemic halted an otherwise unstoppable assault on the Premier League title.
At one stage there was the threat that all of Liverpool’s record-breaking achievements would be wiped from the history books and that they would be denied the title in the cruellest of ways, with the 2019-20 campaign being declared null and void.
The red half of Merseyside will be happier than anyone to see the Premier League return, then, although the prospect of officially wrapping up the title in the backyard of their closest neighbours was taken away from them by Manchester City’s victory over Arsenal on Wednesday night.
Nevertheless, Liverpool are still only six points away from officially being crowned champions of England for the first time since 1990, adding to their status as champions of Europe and champions of the world.
The unprecedented nature of the coronavirus stoppage will naturally be what the 2019-20 campaign is most remembered for in the future, but Liverpool’s exploits also look set to stand the test of time and they will have their sights set on breaking yet more records over the final nine games.
Having incredibly dropped only five of the opening 87 on offer this season, Liverpool need 19 more points from the last 27 available to surpass Manchester City’s centurions in terms of the highest overall points tally in a single campaign, while they also look certain to win the title with more games to spare than any other club has managed in the past.
Liverpool’s run of picking up 106 points from a possible 108 is almost unfathomable and may never be repeated, although they were in the midst of their first real wobble when play was suspended and travel to Goodison Park having lost four of their last six games across all competitions.
That run includes their solitary Premier League defeat of the season – a 3-0 reverse against Watford – while they were not entirely convincing in bouncing back with a 2-1 triumph over Bournemouth in their most recent top-flight outing before lockdown.
For all of the fears that it could scupper their inevitable title, then, the break may have come at an opportune moment for Liverpool as they aim to continue their remarkably dominant record against their local rivals.
Liverpool have not lost a Merseyside derby for a decade now and have already beaten Everton twice this season, so for the Toffees this is arguably the worst possible fixture with which to return.
There may be optimism amongst Everton that they can capitalise on the unique circumstances created by the three-month stoppage, which will see them play a competitive match in June for the first time ever and Liverpool play only their second – after last year’s Champions League final win over Tottenham Hotspur.
For Liverpool this match could nudge a prize even more coveted than that sixth Champions League crown to within touching distance, but Everton will relish the chance to prolong their rivals’ wait just that little bit longer.
The Toffees have certainly improved since Carlo Ancelotti’s arrival, winning five and losing only three of their 11 Premier League games under the Italian so far.
However, they – like Liverpool – suffered a slump immediately prior to lockdown, picking up just one point from a three-game spell against Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea – the latter a heavy 4-0 defeat.
Everton have ambitions of challenging that calibre of clubs for European places under Ancelotti, but they have won just one of their Premier League matches against members of the ‘big six’ this season.
Indeed, all but one of the points they have won in those games this season have come at home, where Everton are currently enjoying a seven-match unbeaten run which stretches back to November.
Whether the lack of fans inside Goodison Park affects that form remains to be seen, but they would certainly rather the stands be packed and the atmosphere electric for the visit of Liverpool.
Relegation may not have crossed the minds of the Toffees, but it is worth noting that victory would take them to the magic 40-point mark and could lift them into the top half of the table.
A European push is not completely off the cards either with only six points separating Everton from seventh-placed Wolverhampton Wanderers, although with five of their remaining nine games coming against teams currently above them in the table they may need to upset some odds along the way – starting on Sunday.
Liverpool are sweating over the fitness of top-scorer Mohamed Salah for this match, with the winger not pictured in training recently and having missed a warm-up game last week.
Manager Jurgen Klopp has refused to rule the Egyptian – or fellow injury doubt Andrew Robertson – out of the contest, but he is unlikely to take any risks over his fitness with games coming thick and fast in the next few weeks.
The likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana and Takumi Minamino could fill in for Salah should he miss out, but Divock Origi would be hopeful of beating them all to a place if only for his record against Everton.
The Belgian has scored five goals in just seven derby appearances, including a brace in the reverse; should he score two or more goals again this weekend then he would become the first Liverpool player since 1925-26 to net more than once in both league derbies within a season.
Everton are also missing some key men, with Yerry Mina, Theo Walcott, Cenk Tosun, Jean-Philippe Gbamin and Fabian Delph all sidelined for the restart.
Andre Gomes is fit after shaking off a knock, while Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin will hope to pick up from where they left off in front of goal.
Richarlison and Michael Keane both netted in the Anfield reverse and so could become the first Everton players to score home and away against Liverpool in the same league season since Andrei Kanchelskis in 1995-96.
Head To Head
Everton’s record against Liverpool is a cloud which has hung over their head for a long time now, with the Toffees winless in the derby since October 2010 – a run of 18 league games and 21 across all competitions.
Should Liverpool avoid defeat again this weekend then they would equal their record unbeaten streak against a particular opponent, which currently stands at 22 games against Aston Villa from 1981 to 1992.
Six of the last seven Premier League meetings at Goodison Park have ended all square, although Everton have failed to even score in the last three of those; the last time they went four such games in a row was in 1978.
Oracle’s prediction: Liverpool to win both halves.
It will be interesting to see whether Liverpool are able to be quite as dominant after the break as they were before it, but they are Everton’s bogey team and Klopp will not mind having a derby as the first game back.
Everton have improved under Ancelotti, but with the game being played behind closed doors, and considering the hosts’ woeful derby record, we are backing the champions-elect to edge ever closer to the title.
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