Whatever happens at Goodison Park on Saturday, one thing is for certain.
The idea of the Merseyside derby being a ‘friendly’ rivalry has eroded somewhat in recent years, but it certainly rings true when it comes to the current managers.
Jurgen Klopp and Carlo Ancelotti may be enemies for 90 minutes this weekend, but there will never be anything except respect and mutual admiration between them.
“I couldn’t respect him more, as a person and as a coach,” Klopp told reporters ahead of his side’s trip across Stanley Park. “He’s a wonderful human being, to be honest.”
Ancelotti feel similarly about him. Klopp, he says, is “an honest man and a great professional” who has built “the perfect machine” at Liverpool. As managers of Everton and Liverpool they can never be best pals, but they often exchange messages. “I feel good when I talk to him,” admits Ancelotti.
Klopp remembers smiling when he heard that the Italian was to take over at Goodison last December. “I thought ‘ah, the next proper challenger in line!’” he said this week.
So far this season, that ‘challenger’ has emerged just as Klopp expected it to. Four games in, it is Ancelotti’s side who top the Premier League. They have the league’s joint-top scorer in Dominic Calvert-Lewin, a new superstar signing in James Rodriguez, a 100 per cent record across seven games in all competitions and, naturally, their eye on a first derby victory in more than a decade.
If they get it, they will have won their first five league games of a campaign for the first time since 1938-39.
The impact of Ancelotti, the club’s real superstar, is clear. This may be his most challenging role, in terms of the status and profile of club, but the 61-year-old is tackling it as he always does; calmly, smartly and with a clear plan. “If you give Carlo time and resources, then he will build something,” Klopp said on Friday.
Everton’s squad has been trimmed, its quality improved through shrewd signings, organisation and good coaching. Despite, or perhaps helped by, the absence of crowds, they have been able to start the season on the front foot, playing with freedom, risk and confidence.
In seven games, they have scored 24 goals, with Calvert-Lewin netting nine. Their midfield, so sluggish and prosaic last season, has been transformed by the arrivals of Allan, who thrived under Ancelotti at Napoli, and Abdoulaye Doucoure, while in Rodriguez and Richarlison they have match-winning quality in the final third.
It’s early days but Rodriguez, whom Ancelotti pushed for hardest of all, looks a gamble that has paid off.
“They did perfect business in the summer,” says Klopp. “They found exactly the players that they needed to improve an already pretty good football team.”
The key though, is in the detail, in the management. Ancelotti’s ability to get – and keep – players onside has been a feature of his remarkable career, and Everton’s squad, so far at least, are benefiting from his sure touch.
“He’s a diamond,” says former Liverpool goalkeeper Chris Kirkland. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say a bad word about him, which in itself says everything.
“He’s so well respected in the world of football, and that’s because he treats people right. People want to play for him.”
Jan Molby, the ex-Reds midfielder, agrees.
“I’m a big fan,” he tells Goal . “I’m lucky enough to remember him as a player, and he was the same then as he is as a manager. He just gives you the impression of somebody who is in control.
“Even players at the highest level, you always need somebody to look to and see that they’re in control, at ease with themselves, and Ancelotti is that.
“That filters down to the players, and this season in particular I think there is a calmness about Everton that I haven’t seen for years. There’s more composure and control with this team, and I think that comes from the manager.”
Of course, the season is still very much in its infancy, and Evertonians have seen enough false dawns to get too carried away just yet. Especially with Liverpool, smarting from that shocking defeat to Aston Villa last time out, ready and waiting to dish out a reality check this weekend.
“We want to strike back,” Klopp said, drawing one one of his favourite phrases.
The Reds have found new ways to inflict pain on their oldest and fiercest foes in recent years, too. Who could forget Jordan Pickford’s Anfield nightmare, Sadio Mane’s stoppage-time dagger or Curtis Jones’ life-changing FA Cup winner?
Ancelotti was on the receiving end of the latter, a 1-0 defeat against a shadow Liverpool side back in January, but has had success against Klopp in the past. He beat his Dortmund side in a Champions League semi-final in 2014, and defeated Liverpool twice in the group stages with Napoli in 2018 and 2019 – even if Liverpool did gain revenge in the first instance by knocking thePartenopeiout in the return fixture at Anfield, thanks to a piece of Mo Salah genius.
“We didn’t see each other a lot, so it is strange that we both feel like this,” Klopp said ahead of the game at San Paolo last season. “Without meeting constantly we always had a good time.” Napoli won the game 2-0, with the return fixture at Anfield finishing 1-1.
And so this weekend they meet again. Blue against Red, first against fifth, pretenders against champions. No fans in the ground, but no lack of intensity. Still so much at stake for both sides.
For Ancelotti, a third crack at a Merseyside derby. For Klopp a 12th. The Italian is yet to win one, the German is yet to lose one. “Long may that continue,” Klopp joked on Friday.
Source : goal.com