Resurgent Everton face acid test in Liverpool showdown

Liverpool’s midfielder Mohamed Salah vies with Leeds United’s defender Pascal Struijk during a recent English Premier League football match in northwest England. (AFP file photo)
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Updated 16 October 2020

Resurgent Everton face acid test in Liverpool showdown

  • Astute leadership: Ancelotti’s relaxed public persona masks a fiercely competitive streak

LONDON: Lifted by Carlo Ancelotti’s astute leadership and the transformative signing of James Rodriguez, Everton have a golden opportunity to prove their rise to the top of the Premier League is no fluke when they face Liverpool on Saturday.
Everton have gone 22 matches without a win over Liverpool since their last Merseyside derby success in October 2010.
But a decade on, Everton finally face their near neighbors from a position of strength, while Liverpool arrive at Goodison Park looking unusually vulnerable.
Everton’s perfect start to the season extended to a fourth successive league win when they brushed Brighton aside before the international break.
Just 24 hours later, Liverpool suffered a humiliating 7-2 loss at Aston Villa that highlighted the defensive flaws that have bedevilled the Premier League champions this season.
If Everton can take advantage of Liverpool’s mini-crisis, it would provide further evidence that Ancelotti’s side are capable of turning their early-season form into a sustained revival.
Without a major trophy since the 1995 FA Cup, Everton have languished in Liverpool’s shadow since the 1980s, when Howard Kendall led them to a pair of top-flight titles.
Thanks to the intuitive guidance of Italian boss Ancelotti and the sublime displays of Colombia playmaker James, the Goodison Park club have hope again.
Ancelotti’s relaxed public persona masks a fiercely competitive streak that has taken him across Europe in search of more managerial glory at an age when many of his peers are ready to step away from such a stressful job.
The 61-year-old has won domestic titles with Chelsea, AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich, as well as lifting the Champions League with Milan, as player and manager, and Real Madrid.
His reputation lost a little lustre during a troubled spell with Napoli that ended with his dismissal in December after 16 months in charge.
Last season, after Ancelotti’s first seven months at Goodison, Everton finished a disappointing 12th, prompting suggestions his appointment to replace the sacked Marco Silva had been a mistake.
But he has turned the tide, helped by a dressing room blast that defied his urbane image.
Tearing into his players after a spineless 3-0 loss at Wolves last season, Ancelotti demanded more ambition and the response has been emphatic.
“We are all aware our standards dropped last season,” said Everton captain Seamus Coleman. “There are ways of losing games, but I thought the fight wasn’t there in some games and wanted to make sure the lads understood what it means to play for this club.
“We have a top-class manager who won’t accept anything else. Since we came back, the standard and work rate has been fantastic.”
Ancelotti has brought the best out of striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who has netted nine goals in six games for Everton this season before scoring on his England debut last week.
His masterstroke has been the close-season capture of Real Madrid cast-off James.
Fellow new-boys Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure have added grit to Everton’s midfield, but James sets the tone.
The 2014 World Cup Golden Boot winner fell out of favor in Madrid, but Ancelotti still had faith in him after their time together at Real and Bayern Munich.
Having won La Liga and Champions League titles with Real and enjoyed domestic success in Munich, the 29-year-old has brought a quality and confidence that has helped address Everton’s chronic lack of belief.
“James has improved us without a shadow of a doubt,” said Coleman. “He has got unbelievable quality when we get him the ball. His range of passing and decision-making are fantastic. We are very fortunate to have him.
“Dominic is benefiting from James and the whole team is at the minute.”
While it is too early to proclaim Ancelotti’s squad as the equals of Everton’s 1980s icons, a top-four push would look realistic if they can add to Liverpool’s problems this weekend.

Guardiola under pressure as City chase elusive crown

Updated 20 October 2020

Guardiola under pressure as City chase elusive crown

  • Despite all their domestic success in recent years, City have never gone beyond the semifinals of the Champions League

LONDON: Pep Guardiola starts his latest bid to lead Manchester City to Champions League glory with the shadows of past failures casting doubt on his ability to secure that elusive title.

City host Porto in their opening Champions League group match on Wednesday with Guardiola's failing in the tournament weighing heavily on both the Spanish boss and his club.

Despite all their domestic success in recent years, City have never gone beyond the semifinals of the Champions League and Guardiola has found the competition equally vexing for much of the last decade.

Since he won the Champions League as Barcelona boss for the second time in 2011, Guardiola has failed to return to the final of Europe's elite club competition.

That nine-year drought includes four years of frustration since he took charge at City in 2016.

In that time, Guardiola has seen City beaten by Monaco in the last 16 and Liverpool, Tottenham and Lyon in the quarterfinals.

He also lost in three semifinals during his time as Bayern Munich manager before moving to City.

Last season's shock 3-1 defeat against Lyon in Lisbon was especially galling as City were heavy favorites against the French side.

Guardiola deserved a large portion of the blame for that letdown after his tactical tinkering appeared to unsettle his players and did nothing to tilt the tie in City's favor.

Interpreted by Guardiola's critics as further proof that his Champions League success at Barcelona was due to the presence of the great Lionel Messi's presence, the only bright side of the Lyon loss was that it was not their farewell to Europe for a while.

For several months last season, it appeared City would not even be competing in the Champions League this term after UEFA gave them a two-year ban from European competitions for Financial Fairplay breaches.

City's legal dream team won that battle and the suspension was eventually thrown out on appeal.

Whether Guardiola can be as successful in Europe as City's Abu Dhabi-based owners were in the court room remains far from certain.

Adding to the unease around City ahead of their European campaign is the unresolved issue of Guardiola's future.

Guardiola is out of contract at the end of the season and has yet to agree on a new deal amid speculation that he may decide to leave the Etihad Stadium in 2021.

For now, Guardiola will focus on Porto's visit to Manchester rather than entertaining questions about his long-term plans.

The 49-year-old insists he has to earn a prolonged stay at City by improving on last season's disappointment, which saw them surrender the Premier League to Liverpool and win only the League Cup.

There have been some worrying signs already as Leicester thrashed City 5-2, while Saturday's 1-0 win against Arsenal was far from convincing.

Significantly, Guardiola was able to welcome back Sergio Aguero last weekend as City's record goalscorer made his first appearance for four months after knee surgery.

City have lacked a cutting edge in Aguero's absence and Guardiola's hopes of a serious Champions League challenge hinge on the Argentine striker staying fit.

"The important thing is that Sergio comes back in good physical condition, starts to get his rhythm, doesn't get more injuries and plays good," Guardiola said.

"We know what he means for us, we know how we appreciate him, but now he has to show like every one of us, me first, that we deserve to continue here and playing good and winning games."