Merseyside Derby Preview

Liverpool host Everton twice this week in the Merseyside Derby, in both the league and the FA Cup in matches that may well define both clubs’ seasons.

This is a game that it is vital for Liverpool to win in order to get back on top of the league. Everton will want to win to keep their good league form up, to erase memories of their poor home performance against Liverpool earlier in the season and to get one over on their rivals.

The Merseyside Derby is more than just an average game though. It is the most illustrious English Derby game, with only the Old Firm (Glasgow’s Celtic and Rangers) game bettering it in Britain. It is a game that puts Family, Friends, Colleagues and Schoolmates alike at odds with each other for one day, competing for bragging rights. This also translates to the pitch as Jamie Carragher was a boyhood Everton fan and Everton’s Leon Osman and Jose Baxter were Liverpool fans growing up, and I assume these players families still have split allegiances. Xabi Alonso and Mikel Arteta were childhood friends in San Sebastien, Spain, growing up in the same street and both playing for and against each other in youth and school teams growing up and face each other on Monday Arteta also was a roommate of Jose Reina when they were both youth players at Barcelona.

It is also the game that has produced the most red-cards in the history of the Premier League and has had many own goals, moments of individual brilliance and many controversial incidents.

On paper the league game looks like it will be a comfortable win for Liverpool, but don’t think for a moment Liverpool will win as easily as they did at Goodison Park earlier in the season. Everton were terrible that day and Gerrard and Alonso were allowed to run the show as we cruised to a 0-2 win.

Recently though, Everton have been a much different proposition. Even though they have not had a recognised striker for most of the last two months (Victor Anichebe is barely a striker!) they have put a very impressive run of results together. Everton are not pretty to watch, they don’t play an expansive passing game or free-flowing football, but they play hard for 90 minutes and find ways of getting the job done.

Marouane Fellaini is going to be a huge loss for Everton. I couldn’t fathom why David Moyes left him on the pitch against Hull with the game as good as won knowing his propensity to get booked. Fellaini is however, an integral part of Everton’s play as he is a huge aerial threat and plays box-to-box. Tim Cahill should play and he is a player who always causes Liverpool problems, especially from corners where he makes a habit of popping up in the box where he’s least expected. Mikel Arteta is arguably Everton’s only genuine flair player and we have to be careful of his prowess at free kicks and not to let him settle on the ball.

Even so, we should be able to win this. We have to play two up front. Everton have a tall, strong defence and Torres is going to need some help.I’d like to see Torres and Keane playing together with Kuyt on the right. It will be interesting to see if Hyypia plays to deal with Everton’s long ball threat but with Arbeloa pushing for a return, Carragher may well move back inside to play with Skrtel or Agger. We should drop Gerrard back into the middle and play Babel and Riera out wide, as I believe Lescott is vulnerable to pace and we can get behind him.

If we win the league game though, expect Everton to come out flying for the FA cup match as I believe that winning the cup represents Everton’s most realistic chance of qualifying directly for the new Europa Cup, as I can’t see them overhauling Aston Villa or Arsenal for fifth position in the league. Everton have not won a trophy in 13 years and will want that to change.

There are some interesting scenarios for the Cup game depending on what happens in the league. If we win the league game our next league match is against Wigan on the Wednesday after the Cup game and with the home match against Chelsea looming large, Benitez may well want to concentrate on the league and therefore rest a few players against Everton in the Cup. This won’t happen if Everton get something in the league match, as we will want to restore our pride by winning the cup match.

All in all, this should be a fascinating week of football in Liverpool and hopefully events on the pitch should be as interesting as events off the pitch.