Everton manager Roberto Martinez hailed Leighton Baines’ new contract as the club’s biggest possible January signing.
The England international has signed a new four-year deal which the Toffees boss believes will see the club benefit from the left-back’s best years of his career.
Baines, 29, had been a target for former manager David Moyes at Manchester United, who had two bids rejected in the summer, but Martinez has persuaded him to extend his stay at Goodison Park – providing a significant boost on the eve of the 222nd Merseyside derby at Anfield.
“It is an important moment for us,” said Martinez. “You are talking about January signings and bringing players into the club but no-one will be bigger than having Leighton Baines focusing on being as good as he can be for Everton in the best years of his career.
“There were going to be a lot of clubs fighting for those years (of Leighton’s career).
“He has a World Cup around the corner and you see what a consistent performer he is – not many players can play 38 league games two seasons out of the last three.
“He has been performing as one the best left-backs in European football and the best is yet to come because now he is in a position where he can enjoy the experience and understanding of the game and affect others around you.
“You look at how important he is with the daily standards, the influence he has with the younger players.
“I am just looking what Leighton can do in the next four years in the dressing room and it is going to be as good as it gets.”
The timing of the news may well have been stage-managed by Everton as they head to Anfield looking for their first league win this century.
However, the implications of Baines committing himself to the club are far-reaching as it shows the confidence a player desperate to play Champions League football has in his manager.
Martinez succeeded Moyes in the summer and has brought an attacking style of football to the team without any drop in performance and they head into tonight’s match just a point behind their near-neighbours, whose manager Brendan Rodgers still talks about them as being title contenders.
Everton have not won at Anfield since Kevin Campbell scored the only goal in September 1999. It is a psychological hurdle which needs to be overcome but having ended a 21-year wait for a victory at Old Trafford last month, Martinez sees no reason why they cannot repeat the feat at Anfield.
“This season we’ve had a couple of big experiences in that respect. There is a mental battle you have to overcome,” he added. “You can come down to the tactical and technical aspects of any performance but more importantly, psychologically you have to have that winning mentality.”
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers admits weakened teams on both sides may well make it difficult for this evening’s derby to match this season’s earlier encounter at Goodison Park.
The Reds are missing defenders Daniel Agger, Mamadou Sakho, Glen Johnson, Jose Enrique and midfielder Lucas Leiva while Everton could have up to nine players missing.
Rodgers is hopeful Joe Allen will be sufficiently recovered from a hamstring problem to bolster the midfield
“We need to see with Joe,” Rodgers said. “He was on the training field today but it is a case of assessing as to whether it will push him too much for this game because we don’t want another injury in a key area.
“We have to think not only for tomorrow night but for the next few weeks. There is still going to be quality players.”