Everton to prove a point, lay down marker for next season at Arsenal
Everton ended a three-game winless and goalless stretch with victory against Watford in their last match, but an inability to affect their league position has seen those in blue limping through the past two months prior to their trip to face Arsenal at the Emirates on Sunday.
Realistic hopes of Romelu Lukaku landing the Golden Boot ended when Harry Kane fired four goals past Leicester on Thursday. Now two goals behind Kane, a Lukaku hat trick is asking a lot of a team without an away win in seven matches. Similarly, Lukaku is four games without a goal, having failed to score in six of his past eight matches.
Nonetheless, this is a chance to prove a point and begin erasing some of the memories of past tenures. David Moyes perpetually failed away from home against the best sides, while Roberto Martinez managed only one win, against a Manchester United team in disarray following the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson.
That victory at Old Trafford in 2013 remains the only away win against one of the six teams above them in the last seven years. A mere three wins in the past 32 visits to White Hart Lane gives some idea of the improvement required. Winless runs at Anfield and Stamford Bridge stand at 19 and 26 matches respectively, while recent form away to the two Manchester clubs is only marginally less painful.
Yet aside from improving away form and correcting the inferiority complex evident in these games, there is a wider subplot that centres on a home team with rather more on their minds. Arsenal and manager Arsene Wenger need three points and an improbable Middlesbrough result at Anfield to snatch fourth place away from Everton's neighbours.
For a visiting team with nothing to play for, some Everton supporters may decide defeat in a meaningless game is an acceptable price to pay if it helps deny Liverpool a Champions League place and limit their summer spending power.
Liverpool fans would likely deem this typical of an Everton support base they perceive as bitter. However, the reality is that no supporter wants to see local rivals succeed, and that extends beyond this city and this sport. By definition, that competitive (selfish) streak is the entire purpose of a rivalry.
Both sides try to play down the relevance of the team across Stanley Park, but when it comes to results and silverware, all supporters revel, albeit to varying degrees, in the misfortune of their local rivals. Banners remind Everton of the years that have passed since their last trophy, while Steven Gerrard slipping as Liverpool squandered the league title in 2013-14 brought a wry smile to the face of many Evertonians.
A similar situation occurred that very season. When Manchester City travelled to Goodison in the closing weeks of the 2013-14 campaign, an Everton victory would have gone a long way to handing Liverpool the title. However, any doubts home supporters may have had faded when Ross Barkley fired the Blues ahead after 11 minutes.
Barkley's goal was celebrated the same as every other scored that season. Even for those home fans that may have wanted Everton to lose to hinder Liverpool, natural instincts took over on the terraces. When Barkley's outstanding effort from distance broke the deadlock, supporters celebrated as normal, without a second thought as to how it affected the title race.
Who will win?
Everton's eventual defeat could not stop some from shouting conspiracy, but there should be no need for such theories on Sunday. Liverpool should coast beyond a poor Middlesbrough side and render events at the Emirates immaterial.
If Everton lose on Sunday, it will not be down to a scheme to stop Liverpool. Arsenal are simply the better team, as Manchester City were when they visited Goodison three seasons ago.
Everton have lost 18 and won none of their past 22 trips to Arsenal in all competitions. Arsenal are finishing strongly, having won six of their past seven matches. Wenger has seen his team win four successive home league games without conceding and they're up against a visiting team with just two wins in their past 17 away. This is a game between a team in form and one that is not.
All of this adds up to a fixture with low expectations, but expecting defeat and wanting defeat are not the same thing. Koeman, for one, will want his team to finish strongly, as a win would mark a first league double against Arsenal since 1985-86.
This match appears insignificant because seventh place is the outcome whatever happens on Sunday, but that is still not enough to wish defeat on your own team, regardless of how it may affect your local rivals.
Three points on Sunday would end a miserable record in this fixture. It would also signal a first step towards competing with the top teams in this league, laying down a marker for next season.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.