There is a good chance that during Wednesday’s Merseyside Derby the Liverpool fans will serenade both managers on the touchline. Much like when Steven Gerrard returns to Anfield 10 days later, Jurgen Klopp will have to share the adulation of the Reds supporters with the man in the opposing dugout.
Rafael Benitez, you feel, will receive a frostier reception from the home fans if things go badly for Everton. And therein lies the problem. The Spaniard’s deep connection with Everton’s arch-rivals meant it was always going to be difficult for him to win over the fans of his current employers.
He is by no means the only person responsible for the Toffees’ rotten run of form. But the uneasiness that greeted his appointment has not dissipated and the fact that Everton could potentially end the midweek round of fixtures in 17th place leaves Benitez in a precarious position.
Everton actually started the season brightly. Four wins and a draw from their first six matches had them sitting in fifth place at the end of September. Their next outing ended in a creditable 1-1 draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford. Benitez had made Everton tougher to beat, the team was disciplined and well organised and the players appeared to have bought into their manager’s methods.
Since then, however, it has all been downhill. Everton have collected one point from the last 18 available – fewer even than last-placed Newcastle United. They have failed to score in their last three games and have picked up a solitary point on the road since August. Benitez has already begun to feel the fans’ ire.
Everton have been unfortunate with injuries. Dominic Calvert-Lewin has not featured for more than three months. Richarlison has been in and out of the team. Abdoulaye Doucoure has missed a substantial chunk of the season after impressing early on.
Everton do not have much strength in depth in the squad. There is a significant drop-off from the first XI to the second XI. The absence of key men has proved costly in recent weeks. Any manager would have struggled to find the right formula without some of his most important players, especially in a game as vital as the Merseyside Derby.
Yet Benitez is not just any manager. The Everton board must have known that appointing a former Liverpool boss was always going to be risky. Benitez’s style of play has not helped either. His teams are not particularly attacking or enterprising. When results dip, there is not much to fall back on.
Everton had a quiet summer in the transfer market. Andros Townsend, Salomon Rondon and Asmir Begovic arrived as free agents and Demarai Gray cost just £2.5m. Benitez knew there would not be a huge outlay when he took charge, but he has not benefited from the type of backing his predecessors received.
That has undoubtedly made the job harder, but there is no getting away from the fact that Benitez was always going to struggle to win over the Everton faithful. He is not just a former Liverpool manager, he is a former Liverpool manager who won the Champions League with the club and who is still loved by their supporters.
“We can understand the frustration of the fans because, also, we are frustrated,” Benitez said after the travelling Everton fans reacted angrily after Sunday’s 1-0 loss to Brentford.
“You cannot complain about the effort of the players or the intensity they put in the game, they tried from the beginning until the end.
“The reality is the team is giving everything on the pitch, you can see the togetherness of the players and they were fighting until the last minute, I can understand the frustration but you cannot complain about effort.”
That may be so, but the results of late have not been good enough and Benitez knows that as well as anyone. Defeat by Liverpool in the Merseyside Derby on Wednesday could leave the Everton hierarchy a big decision to make.
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