By Séamus Leonard
The 221st Merseyside derby sees both clubs come into the game in prominent positions in the Premier League table. Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers finally seems to have instilled a level of consistency into his charges that was painfully missing in 2012/2013, while Roberto Martínez has hit the ground running as Everton manager, avoiding a dip in standards following the departure of his predecessor, David Moyes, to Manchester United.
As good as the opening couple of months have been for Rodgers and Martínez, however, there is the feeling that both clubs could be in even better stead. Liverpool has fallen to defeats against Southampton (home) and Arsenal (away), while Everton’s Achilles heel has been its inability to turn one point into three, having drawn five of its 11 league games to date. All in all, though, there is a feelgood factor on both sides of Stanley Park at the moment.
Neither side has been unduly affected by the latest international break, with no players reporting back with serious injury concerns. However, Liverpool left-back José Enrique’s injury-plagued season has suffered another setback and the Spaniard is set to go under the knife to deal with a persistent knee problem. Everton, conversely, has had good news on the injury front, as defenders Antolín Alcaraz and Tony Hibbert are once again available for selection. It is unlikely either player will be thrust into the starting lineup.
Rodgers opted to play a flat back four in the 4-0 win over Fulham a fortnight ago, and it would be a surprise to see him revert to three in defense given the quality of that performance. If he goes for the former option, he will have to upset two of his four main center backs. Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger formed the partnership against the Cottagers and the pair should retain their starting positions.
A mitigating factor is the presence of Romelu Lukaku in the Everton attack. The striker, who is on loan from Chelsea, is a powerfully-built individual, and both Skrtel and Agger have had problems dealing with such physicality in the past.
An alternative solution would be to select Mamadou Sakho – probably in place of Agger – as the former Paris St. Germain man would be much better suited to match up against the Everton number 17. The France international will also be brimming with confidence after notching two goals for his country against Ukraine in midweek as Les Bleus came back from a 2-0 first-leg deficit to secure qualification for the 2014 World Cup. Kolo Toure, who was hugely impressive in the early stages of the season, is increasingly looking like becoming the squad player many expected him to be when he was signed on a free transfer during the summer.
Rodgers also has tough choices to make further up the park. With Enrique ruled out, Aly Cissokho is likely to start at left-back. Everton’s right flank is a strong area for the Toffees and so the visitors may want to offer Cissokho some protection in that department. Enter Jordan Henderson. The England international has been asked to fill in a number of different roles already this season, and he would have the engine to keep up with Everton’s dynamic right-back Séamus Coleman. In order to get Henderson in that position, Rodgers would probably have to employ a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Sturridge as a target man and Luis Suárez dropping deeper and out to the right. Martínez has an abundance of quality central midfielders, and Liverpool must ensure it is not outnumbered and/or outfought in that area as the side has been at times during this campaign.
Rodgers has yet to taste either victory or defeat in his two Mersyside derbies to date. The corresponding fixture last season ended 2-2 with Suarez unfairly denied an injury-time winner by a dreadful decision by the assistant referee. The reverse fixture at Anfield was a drab, scoreless affair, notable only in that it was Jamie Carragher’s 30th and final derby appearance in his illustrious Liverpool career. The point picked up in that game allowed Everton to secure sixth position and finish ahead of its city rivals for the second consecutive season. While Liverpool’s supporters ambitions usually involve silverware, wrestling back the crown of the best club on Merseyside is a necessary step in that process.
The most important prize on offer on Saturday is, however, three points. A win would lift Liverpool above Arsenal into top spot. The Gunners host high-flying Southampton later in the day. For Everton, victory would see the Toffees climb level on 23 points with their derby opponents. Even in the lean times for both clubs, the clash of red and blue always meant something. You get the sense this encounter means even that bit more than usual.
If you are in the greater Boston area, you will be able to watch the match at The Phoenix Landing with LFC Boston. If not, you can watch it on NBC Sports Network, with coverage starting at 0745 EST.
Everton v Liverpool
When: Saturday, November 23, 0745 EST/1245 GMT
Where: Goodison Park, Liverpool
Previous Premier League match: Crystal Palace 0-0 Everton, Liverpool 4-0 Fulham
League Position 2013-14: Everton 6th (20 points), Liverpool 2nd (23 points)
Projected Everton Starting 11
DEF: Coleman, Jagielka, Distin, Baines
MID: Mirallas, Barry, McCarthy, Osman, Pienaar
Subs from: Robles, Heitinga, Hibbert, Alcaraz, Stones, Barkley, Deulofeu, Naismith, Jelavic
Projected Liverpool Starting 11
DEF: Johnson, Skrtel, Sakho, Cissokho
MID: Suarez, Lucas, Gerrard, Coutinho, Henderson
Subs from: Jones, Kelly, Agger, Toure, Flanagan, Ilori, Allen, Luis Alberto, Ibe, Sterling, Moses
Follow Séamus Leonard on Twitter @seamusleonard