Liverpool v Everton is the most-played derby in England, but these days it is very much a battle for best of the rest
The question being asked is whether the balance of power will have shifted on Merseyside should Everton finish above Liverpool for the second successive season. The brutal answer is that power cannot shift when it has already slipped along the M62. David Moyes is among those who fears two historic clubs are in danger of being left behind.
An Everton win at Anfield on Sunday would be their first since 1999 and guarantee a finish above their wealthier, local rivals. The last time that happened two seasons in a row with Everton and Liverpool in the same division was in 1936 and 1937, and a repeat in the financially doped Premier League era would represent a victory of sorts for Moyes. There will be no open-top bus parade.
Steven Gerrard recoiled when the introductory question was put to him this week. His answer might be interpreted by sensitive souls as a sour dig at Everton, and naturally the Liverpool captain was defending Liverpool's corner, but his honest, factually correct assessment was more about Merseyside's current frustration as outsiders looking in than point scoring in derby week. On the task of overhauling Everton, Gerrard said: "That's in everyone's head at the moment, short-term. But you know, sixth or seventh is not a real big deal is it?"
Back came the question about power shifting on Merseyside. Gerrard retorted: "Yes, but they [Everton] haven't won anything have they? It's nothing to finish sixth or seventh in this league. Listen, if Everton finish above us and their supporters are really happy and their players and everyone is really happy, then that's up to them. But if we finish above Everton there will be no celebrating or anything around here because it's nothing really. It's no big deal. We want to win the derby, of course we do. We want to finish above Everton, of course we do. But in the big picture is it really, really important? I don't know ... maybe not."
Gerrard did insist that the most played derby in English league football, Sunday's is the 188th league meeting between the teams and the 220th in total, remains "a special game". He added: "We might be fighting for sixth and seventh but it's still a massive game." But the days when a spring Merseyside derby influenced the destiny of the title, days that Gerrard grew up with, are gone. One obvious, influential reason is the financial might of the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea. But with Tottenham and Arsenal also pushing Merseyside behind the leading lights in London, the explanation runs deeper.
Moyes admits: "Merseyside is third behind Manchester and London at the moment. The strength the Manchester clubs have got has overpowered everybody. With Chelsea joining in and Tottenham too, and then Arsenal have their quality, it is a tough ask to compete against that. But Liverpool have been very close to it. It wasn't too long ago, in 2009 under Rafa [Benítez], that they were second, so football can change very quickly. Liverpool have been much, much closer than we were to the Manchester teams but we've maybe had a longer journey to come.
"We've been climbing from a lot further away and we have closed that gap. We're not close enough, but we are getting closer."
Liverpool and Everton, with their hemmed-in stadia, do not have Manchester United's good fortune with the space required to develop Old Trafford. Equally, their leaders in the boardroom, and the civic leadership in Liverpool, have lacked the foresight and means that has turned United into such a dominant force, that attracted the Commonwealth Games to the city and built the stadium that was then passed on to Manchester City and, in turn, attracted Sheikh Mansour.
"I agree, it's getting harder to compete financially," said the Everton manager. "The Manchester clubs have got stadiums that hold 70-odd thousand and 50-odd, and they've got the corporate facilities that play a big part these days. City were helped in their stadium by the council and with the new rules over financial fair play, all clubs will be relying very heavily on their marketing team – how many executive boxes you can sell, how many season tickets and dinners you can sell.
"At Everton we have very few rooms to cater, very few executive boxes, so we are going to find it difficult to keep up because the marketing side is so important. Keeping up and then catching up is going to be even harder. You really have to have a good team to bring the sponsorship to enable you to improve your wage budget."
European football and the size of Everton's transfer budget will influence Moyes's decision whether to stay or leave Goodison Park when his contract expires at the end of the season. In the arduous search for new investment for the club, and following two failed stadium projects on the watch of the chairman, Bill Kenwright, the Scot has raised the subject of renaming the club's 121-year-old home.
Moyes said: "A lot of people did not want to go to Kirkby for different reasons but you do need to generate revenue streams. We could even look at naming rights for the stadium. Obviously the club could do that because it owns Goodison. Things like this are going to be relevant to both clubs if we're going to hang in there with the top teams.
"The chairman has given me everything he can to try and move us up the league and we've done that. The bit we've not yet been able to do is find the new stadium. All the money we've had has gone to me to improve the team and catch the others up. As I said, we've got a little bit closer, if not close enough."