Roberto Martinez’s side look like the Reds’ last chance to get their trophy push back on track but talk of the Toffees deliberately losing are wide of the mark
By Jay Jaffa
Barring a very unlikely set of results in the final two Premier League games, it is relatively safe to assume that Arsenal will be playing Champions League football next year and Everton, Europa League. What is not clear yet, though, is who will win the title. Suddenly a large amount of responsibility on that outcome lies on Roberto Martinez and his players as they prepare to face Manchester City on Sunday.
The problem, as many from the blue side of Merseyside will attest, is that gaining a result against City would almost certainly open the door for Liverpool – their arch-rivals – to win the Premier League crown.
After losing 2-0 at Anfield last Sunday to Chelsea, the Reds need City, who have a vastly superior goal difference, to slip up in one of their remaining games. With Aston Villa and West Ham their final two fixtures – both at home – hope rests on their trip to Goodison Park.
Naturally, though, there is consternation amongst Liverpool fans that their cross-city rivals might just roll over and let Manuel Pellegrini’s side win – a feeling not that unfamiliar in scenarios similar to this one.
Martinez was keen to point out in his pre-match press conference that he will ensure that his team do all they can to honour the integrity of competition; a good start.
He told reporters on Thursday: “I always felt the relationship between the two clubs in this city has had incredible chapters and this would be another fascinating one but there is no doubting our integrity towards the league and the competition.
“We want to win every single game we go into. They are precious points for us and we cannot afford not to give everything we have.
“But helping other teams? That’s not the way we do our work. We’re just focusing on trying to win for ourselves and have real high standards in every game that we go into and represent our football club.
“We would never contemplate giving anything other than our best. We’re not coming out to do any one a favour. We have our own pride.”
Two defeats in their last three games, just as Arsenal have found their stride again, have derailed Everton’s push for the top four and only an unlikely set of results would see the Toffees break into the top four.
Fortunately for the pessimists, they are still within touching distance of Arsene Wenger’s men – four points behind – and as such it would be surprising to see them take their foot off the gas at Goodison Park.
A statistic has been doing the rounds this week; plugged optimistically by title-yearning Liverpool fans. Which team have won 10 of their last 15 home matches against City with just one defeat in that time? It is, of course, Everton. The omens look good.
The outcome does depend on us trusting the integrity of two managers, 22 players and a host of people behind the scenes but there are recent examples of similar situations which suggest that the Premier League remains a noble competition.
You may remember the conclusion to the 2002-03 season, when Arsenal required a win over Leeds at Highbury to ensure that they pushed leaders Manchester United to the wire. Peter Reid’s side were battling relegation at the time, more than enough reason to give their all in fairness, but the distaste between Leeds and United is well known. The eventual Mark Viduka-inspired 3-2 win handed Sir Alex Ferguson’s side their 15th title.
In 1994-95, United had to rely on Liverpool to beat Blackburn on the final day if they were to leapfrog Kenny Dalglish’s team. The Reds duly did their duty, coming out of a three-game winless slump to triumph 2-1 at Anfield. West Ham put a spanner in the works that year, though, holding United to a 1-1 draw, thus gifting the title to Blackburn.
It is easier to recall contrasting examples; moments in which teams have happily played out results that would scupper their rivals’ title ambitions, but that is not to say that the other end of the spectrum is blank – it is just less memorable.
Here is a prime example of the more memorable version of events from the 2009-10 Eredivisie season: Steve McClaren’s FC Twente led the league by a point with two games to go. Following their 1-0 loss at AZ, McClaren’s side faced Feyenoord at home knowing that anything other than victory would likely see them lose their grip on the title.
Feyenoord – fierce rivals with Ajax – could shape the destiny of the Eredivisie and the club’s supporters were all too aware, approaching the players at the Rotterdam training facility and imploring their team to lose. That they did, 2-0 on the day, and Twente held their nerve to win the first title in the club’s history.
What is probably less well known is the scenario which emerged in the following season as Feyenoord played PSV at the De Kuip. Mario Been’s side were sitting 11th at the time of the match but knew that if they beat high-flying PSV, the destination of the title would be in Ajax’s hands. A 3-1 victory did just that and, on a moral level, may have atoned for the previous season. Either way it was an honourable outcome for those still smarting from the previous year.
Back to the modern day and over to Spain where Barcelona may face a similar quandary with the Primera Division title race. It is complicated but, if Atletico Madrid drop points before the final round of fixtures and lead the league by two points or fewer (with Real their nearest challengers), Tata Martino’s side could decide whether the title heads to the red or white half of Madrid at Camp Nou on the final day.
This debate is legitimate. There have been examples throughout the history of football (in note form: West Germany played out a mutually agreeable 1-0 win over Austria at World Cup 1982 to ensure qualification, Roma collapsed in the second half of their game against Juventus in 1972-73 to prevent Lazio winning the Scudetto, Lazio returned the favour in 2009-10 as Inter won in Rome to move ahead of Roma) of ‘convenient’ results occurring.
There are, however, few – if any – notable examples in English football. This is a game that prides itself, rightly or naively, on the virtues of integrity and honesty within its domestic competitions. Critics have used this aversion to the darker arts as a stick with which to beat the national game – “too honest for our own good” the soundbite, but reputations stick for a reason.
Search for ‘match-fixing in English football’ on Wikipedia and you will happen across a tiny article containing a mere seven incidents in over 150 years of history. Do the same with Italian football and the top two results are whole pages dedicated to the Calciopoli and Calcioscommesse scandals of 2006 and 2011-12.
It is different worlds, different cultures and one that Everton would not be happy to join. Their match against Manchester City has relevance in their own narrative this season. It is just unfortunate that the outcome could shape the narrative of a club so close to ending a 24-year top-flight drought, as well as a club so fiercly loathed by Evertonians.
If Liverpool do end up empty-handed in two weeks’ time, they will surely have themselves to blame rather than Martinez’s side.