"Liverpool will never have a better chance"
At the end of the season we may look back on January as the month when Liverpool's season was decided. Not only has 2009's first month witnessed Rafa Benitez's extraordinary outburst against Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, but it also features two Merseyside derbies at Anfield: two games that could cement Liverpool's trophy aspirations or fatally undermine the squad's confidence.
The current Premier League leaders know that if Manchester United win their game in hand away to Bolton Wanderers on Saturday they will lose top spot and must beat Everton on Monday to regain pole position. Indeed, with Liverpool failing to fire in their last outing, an insipid 0-0 draw away to Stoke, it seems that Benitez's diatribe against Sir Alex has backfired and actually heaped increased pressure on his own players rather than United's.
• Relive some of the best Merseyside derbies of all time this weekend, January 17 and 18, exclusively not live on ESPN Classic (Sky Channel 442). For details visit: www.espnclassic.com
With another Merseyside derby to follow six days later in the FA Cup it could be that Liverpool's fierce local rivals are responsible for de-railing their season; but Peter Beardsley, who won the league title twice while at Anfield in a career spanning 20 years and 13 clubs, including Everton, believes that this year represents Liverpool's best opportunity to win the league since their last title in 1989-90.
''They'll never have a better chance,'' says Beardsley. ''At this stage in the last four or five seasons they've fallen away. The ball is in their court, even though there's a long way to go. If they win every game they'll be champions; that will be their aim. If they don't finish first this time I definitely think they'll finish second. And that will be progress.''
While understanding that derby games can never be taken lightly, Beardsley sees Monday's game as the perfect opportunity for Liverpool to get their title bid back on track after the disappointing draw against Stoke.
''It's obviously going to be a tough game for both teams,'' he says. ''But one that Liverpool will certainly want to win. I think Everton have done brilliantly this season - and at the very worst they'll finish sixth - but Liverpool want to be number one and it's a long time since they have been.''
On the subject of Rafa Benitez's extraordinary comments, Beardsley takes the view that, regardless of the outcome, the Liverpool boss had his players' best interests at heart and refutes the suggestion that the comments backfired and added pressure to the squad.
''Rafa says what he thinks, and that's up to him. It's hard for me to say who's right and who's wrong. The proof will come at the end of the season. Rafa obviously thought the time was right, I believe he okayed it with his players beforehand; he actually told them before he did it.
''It won't have changed the way they feel, in some ways it might have made them more determined because he's obviously backed them and they probably want to win the league for him as much as [themselves]. When you play for Liverpool there's enough pressure, because you expected to win every game anyway.''
Comparisons have been drawn between Benitez's comments and those of Kevin Keegan and the infamous ''I would love it'' rant when most observers felt the Newcastle United boss had succumbed to a psychological war started, and eventually won, by Ferguson in the 1995-96 title race.
As a former Liverpool player, and as part of the Newcastle team at the time, Beardsley is well-placed to compare the two.
''We were genuinely surprised [by Keegan's comments]. We didn't know it happened, we were told about it in the dressing room at Leeds after it happened. But we didn't see it on TV until we got home. But he was protecting us and supporting us, and when your manager does that you can't fault him, and it's the same thing with Benitez.''
Six days after Monday's chance to reignite their season Liverpool will again meet their old rivals in the FA Cup.
When the FA Cup fourth round draw pitted the Merseyside pair together for the January 25 tie thoughts naturally turned to previous FA Cup meetings between the two, with the 1986 and 1989 finals at Wembley featuring prominently. But for Beardsley another game has lived long in the memory; the incredible 4-4 draw in 1991's fifth round replay at Goodison Park, a game in which he played and scored.
''[It was] a remarkable game,'' he says. ''The first had been 0-0, I didn't start that one, but I went on as sub and hit the post with seven minutes to go. I got chance to play in the 4-4; it was amazing. We were ahead four times! Everton got out of jail, but beat us in the replay.''
The day after that remarkable night, football was stunned by Kenny Dalglish's decision to quit as Liverpool manager, as Beardsley recalls: ''It was the next morning that he left. We were going to Luton on the Thursday to get used to the plastic pitch (at Kenilworth Road). When we arrived that morning we found out he was calling it a day, which rather shocked everyone.
''He came and told us that, for whatever reason, he'd decided to go. It was a sad for Liverpool, and when you look at the way he's still thought of when he goes back it tells you how special he was, he was probably the greatest No.7 they'd ever had, and with respect to Robbie Keane, probably the greatest they'll ever have.''
When asked about the tradition of exceptional No.7s at Liverpool Beardsley is self-effacing: ''I was lucky, Kevin Keegan was the first of the big 7s, then it was Dalglish and I followed them, which was an honour in itself. I wasn't in their league, but to get the chance to take Kenny's shirt, which is what he told me when signed me, was rather special. A very proud day, I have to say.
''It didn't feel like pressure because of how good he made me feel, the fact that he thought I could replace him gave me confidence. And, to be honest, I was awful for the first six months, when I look at for Robbie Keane I feel sorry for him because he hasn't been anyway near as bad I was.''
Beardsley is one of only two players to score for both Liverpool and Everton in Merseyside derbies - the other being David Johnson - and remains struck by the unique nature and atmosphere of those games which became known as the 'Friendly Derby'.
''The humour of those games made the Merseyside derby different, '' he says. ''In other derbies there's almost hatred [amongst the fans]. But the amazing humour made the Merseyside game different. You look and there'll be red and blue stood together, you wouldn't get that between Sunderland and Newcastle''.
• Relive some of the best Merseyside derbies of all time this weekend, 17th & 18th January, exclusively not live on ESPN Classic (Sky Channel 442). For details visit: www.espnclassic.com