LIVERPOOL // Drive into Liverpool and the signs will proclaim its status as the European Capital of Culture in 2008. Speak to the people and they have taken greater satisfaction from its unofficial title of English capital of football over the past five decades. Vilnius and Linz have inherited one tag. The other is in danger of being ceded to London or Manchester. For all the deprivation, the unflattering statistics about the crime, education and unemployment, there were league tables Liverpudlians could cherish: the footballing ones. Given the size of the city, its two teams have been disproportionately successful.
For the past three seasons, both clubs have been placed in the top six. They enter today's derby at Goodison Park with Liverpool outside the positions that guarantee qualification for Europe and Everton in the lower third of the league. Now a troubled city has two troubled clubs. Facing out to the Irish Sea and looking inward, Merseyside is a place unlike others, but a fierce pride in its two greatest attractions has been damaged this week. Liverpool were eliminated from the Champions League the day before Everton conceded three goals in a terrible first half-hour at Hull.
Recent meetings have been marked by a vitriol from the supporters. Together with the incidents that have produced more red cards than any other Premier League fixture, that has ended its reputation as "the friendly derby", but Liverpool and Everton are united by frustration at results on and off the field. Each manager has experienced the worst injury crisis of his time on Merseyside. During it, Everton have won one in 10, Liverpool two in 11. David Moyes's men have lost six of their last eight, Rafa Benitez's six of 11.
No brick has been laid in the new Anfield, while the local council this week rejected Everton's plan to build a 50,000-seat stadium in Kirkby, on the outskirts of the city. They may be reluctantly willing to ground-share, but that does not equate to offering Liverpool the freedom of Goodison Park today. Indeed, given Everton's strangely lacklustre defeat at Hull, the suspicion is that they will have a point to prove. Effort has often gone unquestioned in Moyes's seven-year reign; at the KC Stadium, the Scot was lamenting an inability to fight from the first minute, not the 45th.
The phalanx of absentees have forced him to persist with underachievers, one of whom - Joseph Yobo - is captaining the team. If the returns of Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and Marouane Fellaini from suspensions give Moyes more options, a difficulty is that too few players are presenting a case to play. Yet the importance for them all emphasised by Fellaini, one who has flattered to deceive. "We simply have to win," the Belgian said. "If we lose I would hear the other fans celebrating and I don't want to have to shut my window. I want to win."
Liverpool have triumphed on their past two league trips to Goodison Park and Dirk Kuyt, the match-winner in October 2007, said: "The derby matches are always very special and you never need to be motivated for these games. We have confidence we can beat them." However, predictions of an upturn in fortunes for Liverpool have tended to be optimistic of late. Defeat today, after all, could leave them an irretrievable 16 points adrift of Chelsea. Yet some of their difficulties should be ending as many of Benitez's players return. Fernando Torres faces a fitness teast but is likely to be sidelined today but with the trio of Yossi Benayoun, Fabio Aurelio and Glen Johnson all available again, it is almost a full squad.
Having reiterated that he has rejected Real Madrid to stay on Merseyside, Benitez has said he is "100 per cent confident" of a top-four finish; Moyes, in contrast and perhaps in an attempt to elicit a response from his players, suggested Everton could be involved in a relegation struggle. He has been uncharacteristic-ally downbeat, but then that is the mood of the city. It produced the Beatles, but has been home to the beaten in the past two months.
Derbies tend to heighten resolve and galvanise teams, but recent results suggest a resistible force is meeting a moveable object. The only consolation is that the misery for one half of Merseyside will be alleviated today. firstname.lastname@example.org Everton v Liverpool, KO 5.30pm, Showsports 1 & 2