Commentary

Donovan, Yanks spice up old rivalry

Updated: February 19, 2010, 3:18 PM ET
By Roger Bennett | ESPN.com

The city of Liverpool is to soccer what Indiana is to high school basketball or what Kabaddi is to the Punjab. It's a sporting hotbed, traditionally torn between the red of Liverpool and blue of Everton -- a split mythically attributed to the division between Protestant and Catholic. But this season it can be better understood by the starkly contrasted ways the supporters relate to the U.S.

[+] EnlargeLandon Donovan
Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty ImagesLandon Donovan has become a fan favorite with Everton, deepening the rift between followers of the club and those of rival Liverpool.

Liverpool fans abhor the turbulence into which the club's absentee American owners, George Gillett and Tom Hicks, have steered it. Hicks' surprise visit to Anfield this past weekend was met by a mob venting its fury after the game and chants of "Yanks out! Yanks out!" that forced the Texan to barricade himself inside the stadium. Less than a mile away, at Everton's Goodison Park, cries of "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!" regularly resound in good humor as Tim Howard of North Brunswick, N.J., keeps goal and Ontario, Calif.'s finest, Landon Donovan, scurries down the wing.

Donovan has generally impressed since his January Premier League debut, dismantling the damning stigma that he couldn't prosper outside MLS game by game. In his short English career, Donovan has flourished against the more challenging teams, Arsenal and Manchester City, but disappeared from the fray against the inferior yet dogged opposition provided by Birmingham and Wigan. We'll have to wait until this weekend to discover into which category the erratic Liverpool squad belongs.

Saturday's Merseyside derby at Anfield (7:45 a.m. ET, ESPN2) will be Donovan's greatest test yet. The tie is traditionally a blood-and-thunder affair in which passion and commitment trump strategy and tactics, tackles fly in studs-up and red cards are brandished routinely.

The stakes will be high for both teams. Everton is finally gaining ground after a dire, injury-inflected start to its season. Its last Premier League loss came against Liverpool back in November, but since then the teams' fortunes have reversed. The Blues are charging on the outside rail into European contention, while Liverpool has been a "big four" team in name only. Plagued by swirling rumors of financial debt, distracted by talk that manager Rafael Benitez has his eyes on the Juventus job and blunted by the absence of star forward Fernando Torres' intelligent beauty, the thin squad has struggled. The late-starting Alberto Aquilani's ability to mesh with Steven Gerrard and Javier Mascherano may determine the club's season.

Everton's campaign can be divided broadly into three phases: losing, drawing and, now, winning by any means necessary. It's no coincidence that the team's recent resurgence overlapped with Donovan's arrival. The Californian has wisely done the simple things well, never looking to hit home runs, confident his speed and skill give him the verve to succeed. The pace and lack of space that define the English game may occasionally confuse and exhaust him, and he has showed a tendency to desert the flanks, drifting into the center when frustrated, yet overall he is exactly the kind of player Everton fans admire: hardworking, committed, technically able and possessing the ability to create sudden bursts of beauty.

Donovan provides two critical assets. On the field, he offers Everton a legitimate threat on the right-hand side, a flank that has long been strangely fallow. Off it, he adds instant marketing muscle in the U.S. Awarding him the vaunted No. 9 shirt was a savvy, strategic move by a club often accused of being a step behind from a public relations perspective. The royal-blue shirts are beginning to filter in among the Real Madrid, Barca, Manchester United and Chelsea replicas that cling to beer bellies in soccer bars across the States.

That shirt, which may, to untutored eyes, resemble a pregnancy smock, pays homage to the last great Everton side: The 1985 team plundered both the league and (now-defunct) European Cup Winners' Cup and was considered to be among the most potent in Europe. The five-year blanket ban imposed on all English clubs in the wake of Liverpool's role in the Heysel Stadium tragedy stole Everton's momentum. The side has never truly recovered.

Although many of its older supporters still consider Everton to be a big club, the team's dearth of financial resources suggests otherwise. Yet Everton has found a way to overachieve as plucky underdogs in the past five seasons. Uncompromising manager David Moyes, the Scottish MacGyver, has resourcefully crafted hardworking teams on a low budget, coaxing world-class performances from talent others have cast off. South African Steven Pienaar, Frenchman Louis Saha and Spaniard Mikel Arteta have resurrected their careers at Goodison Park, examples Donovan could well follow.

Chronic injuries have forced Moyes to jury-rig his team for much of the season. The manager probably can't believe the abundance of riches he suddenly has at his disposal. For the first time, he has options in midfield as Donovan vies with Pienaar, Arteta, Marouane Fellaini, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, Leon Osman, Tim Cahill and Jack Rodwell for a starting role. Everton's artful performance in clubbing Manchester City had many fans dreaming of a return to the heady days of 1985.

What Donovan will do when his putative three-month loan ends is the subject of growing speculation, both on Merseyside and in the states. MLS fans cling to hopes of his return. U.S. coach Bob Bradley would no doubt prefer he prepare for the World Cup in the crucible of the English Premier League. Everton's board will be counting its coins to conjure the funding to make the move permanent. The player's agent may dream of engineering a post-World Cup move to a "bigger club," but watching Donovan wheel away after scoring against Sunderland is to see the finest American player of his generation perform with glee, safe in the knowledge that at long last he belongs.

Non-American Everton player to watch: Fellaini. In December, Moyes labeled him the "best midfield player in the country," and as if touched by a magic spell, the lanky Belgian transformed from a foal unable to control his flailing limbs into a whirling man-o'-war, destroying opponents' play. His curious, upright running style and magnificent mane have made him a cult figure among Everton fans who are well aware they should enjoy watching him while they can.

Non-Everton player to watch: Jamie Carragher. The veteran Liverpool defender appears to have lost a step this season. This past weekend he filled in at right back against Bolton, and he will have to draw on all of his experience to repel Everton's smurfish marauders, Leighton Baines and Pienaar, raiding the wing in tandem.

Roger Bennett is a co-author of the forthcoming ESPN World Cup Companion, your guide to everything you need to know to enjoy the 2010 World Cup. E-mail him at sirfabiocapello@yahoo.com.