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The Camden Cad
Aug 24, 2004
North London
They say that lightning doesn’t strike twice, but with momentum growing at both ends of Stanley Park, it looks like now might be a good time to run for cover. Everton are more than capable of finishing fourth and, at the same time, no-one would be surprised if Liverpool snaffled a sixth European Cup. Oh, it’s going to be messy on Merseyside.

After the fiasco of 2004-05, when Everton clinched the final berth at the money trough shortly before Liverpool won the Champions League from fifth, UEFA has now clarified the rules rather more effectively than they clarified offside.

“The UEFA Champions League title-holder is guaranteed a place in the group stage even if it does not qualify for the competition through its domestic championship. If the title-holder comes from an association entitled to more than one place in the UEFA Champions League and qualifies for the UEFA Cup through its domestic competitions, the lowest-ranked club of the association’s UEFA Champions League representatives is automatically transferred to the UEFA Cup.”

All of which means that Everton could comfortably finish fourth again and it would count for nothing if European specialists Liverpool won in Moscow in May.

Of course, a couple of weeks ago we’d have all chortled merrily at the thought of Liverpool winning anything at all. Bundled out of the FA Cup by Barnsley and twice-trailing to a team of plumbers and dustbin men from the south coast, the only European question was whether or not they’d be entering the Intertoto Cup. But this is Liverpool and the reassuring feel of a wall on their back appears to be a powerful motivator for them. They’ve made the most of some good fortune, in the form of daft red cards, ludicrous goalkeeping errors and schoolboy defending, and racked up three straight wins. More than that though, they’re actually starting to look quite good.

Rafa Benitez continues to shuffle his pack, but at least it now seems to be warranted. This weekend he made four changes to the side that beat Middlesbrough, bringing in Martin Skrtel to help Sami Hyypia deal with Bolton’s aerial threat, and switching his full-backs to take advantage of weaknesses on the flanks. It worked. His decision to pick a formation and stick with it also seems to be helping. Liverpool have now settled on a 4-2-3-1 and it brings the best out of their players. Ryan Babel was outstanding and Steven Gerrard finally put in a performance worthy of his reputation. I’m still not sure about Dirk Kuyt out on the wing, but you can’t have everything.

Meanwhile Everton are proving their worth by beating Manchester City and Portsmouth, both hugely important, high pressure games. There’s a swagger about David Moyes’ side these days. Steven Pienaar has moved up a gear in recent weeks and offers them genuine width and pace. Yakubu is at the top of his game, shattering his image as a lazy talent with some barnstorming displays.

Just as in 2005, they will meet at Anfield at the end of March for a critical clash, but Liverpool fans will do well to remember what happened there three years ago. They beat their blue rivals 2-1, but went on to lose to Manchester City, Crystal Palace and Arsenal over the next six weeks and Everton held onto fourth place. When Liverpool then beat Milan in that epic Final, UEFA originally ruled that they would not be able to defend their trophy, sparking a vicious war of words across the continent. Liverpool’s main argument seemed to be that the rule shouldn’t apply as it was just silly and amazingly, it actually worked. They were reinstated into the first round.

The new clarification means that there will be no debate this year. It’s horribly unfortunate and slightly unfair, but Everton could win at Anfield, finish fourth and still have to play in the UEFA Cup next season. I can’t fault UEFA’s logic of rewarding success before rewarding an off-the-podium finish, but surely there’s a better way of settling it than this? Why can’t Everton join in from the first preliminary round just like their city rivals did? One thing’s for sure though, there’s a storm brewing on Merseyside.