By Séamus Leonard
The Merseyside derby is usually quite a hyped-up event, but the fortunes of both Liverpool and Everton so far this season have ensured that this is a clash that doesn’t need much selling. With just one point between the sides, a coveted spot in the Champions League places is a distinct possibility for both. And although the three points are as important as the much-vaunted ‘bragging rights’, a win for either side would be a massive psychological boost as the season heads towards what promises to be an uber-exciting climax in May.
Aside from the obvious geographical proximity of the clubs, they share much more than a postcode. In Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez, the pair have managers who believe in a passing game, and who have stayed true to their beliefs even when results have not kept pace with their ideologies.
Unfortunately, injuries will be a defining feature of the 222nd Merseyside derby. Both Rodgers and Martinez will have makeshift defenses in operation, which is probably more of a concern for the former manager. As prolific as Liverpool has been in attack, its defensive limitations have seen it concede 28 goals in 21 league games to date. Of course, injuries have played their part, and Rodgers will have to make do without Daniel Agger, Glen Johnson, Jose Enrique and Mamadou Sakho on Tuesday night. The latter’s absence is particularly disappointing, as Liverpool could do with his physicality to counteract the threat of Everton striker Romelu Lukaku.
However, Liverpool’s defensive frailties have not been solely down to the absence of key individuals. The Reds have struggled on set-pieces, failed to prevent crosses coming into the box and allowed too many shots on goal all season, regardless of the make-up of the rearguard. Cutting out individual errors is a start, of course, but Liverpool’s defensive woes run deeper than that.
On a positive note, however, Everton’s defense is also unlikely to be at its most resolute. The Toffees will be without marauding right-back Seamus Coleman, and there are major question marks over the availability of center back pairing Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka. Leighton Baines, who just signed a new four-year deal at Goodison Park, will take up his usual left-back position.
Martinez has injury concerns in other areas, with doubts over midfielders Ross Barkley and Steven Pienaar, while the game may come too soon for recent loan signing Lacina Traore. The 6’ 8” striker is struggling with a hamstring complaint. And Bryan Oviedo is sidelined for the foreseeable future after his horrific leg break in the 4-0 FA Cup win over Stevenage at the weekend.
The hosts have their own midfield worries, with Lucas Leiva ruled out with the knee injury he incurred in the frustrating 2-2 draw with Aston Villa. Joe Allen is back training with the squad, but Rodgers has expressed his reservations about starting the Wales international for fear that rushing him back would lead to a further spell on the treatment table.
If Allen is held in reserve, that leaves just Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson as the only recognized senior central midfielders available to start. Liverpool has looked vulnerable when it has been overrun in that area this season, and so Rodgers needs to address that deficit. One way of dealing with the situation would be to drop Philippe Coutinho to the bench. The Brazilian has struggled to regain top form since returning from a shoulder injury, and may be considered an unaffordable luxury if Rodgers wants to provide a solid defensive base behind the strike partnership of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. It may also help to be able to introduce someone of Coutinho’s undoubted ability if Liverpool needs to inject some impetus to proceedings in the latter stages.
If Coutinho is sacrificed, the Liverpool boss might instruct Suarez to drop a little deeper into midfield when the Reds are without possession. Some may argue that it’s counter-productive to move the Uruguayan away from goal. However, as he displayed with two assists in the 2-0 FA Cup victory at Bournemouth on Saturday, Suarez does not always have to be among the goals to exert a telling influence on a game. And a less advanced role may offer him the space to pick out Sturridge’s clever runs off the shoulder of the last defender.
Recent history is on Liverpool’s side when it comes to this fixture, as it is 15 years since an Everton side left Anfield with all three points. But this Toffees outfit is nothing if not resolute, as evidenced by its measly tally of two defeats this season (the lowest in the league). However, the blue side of Merseyside has also racked up nine draws (bettered only by West Brom’s tally of 10).
The smart money is on a score draw of some kind.
Liverpool v Chelsea
When: Tuesday January 28, 1500 EST/2000 GMT
Where: Anfield, Liverpool
Previous Premier League match: Liverpool 2-2 Aston Villa, West Brom 1-1 Everton
League Position 2013-14: Liverpool 4th (43 points), Everton 6th (42 points)
Projected Liverpool Starting 11
DEF: Flanagan, Skrtel, Toure, Cissokho
MID: Sterling, Gerrard, Henderson, Moses
FW: Suarez, Sturridge
Subs from: Jones, Kelly, Sama, Smith, Allen, Luis Alberto, Ibe, Coutinho, Aspas
Projected Everton Starting 11
DEF: Hibbert, Stones, Distin, Baines
MID: Mirallas, McCarthy, Barry, McGeady, Osman
Subs from: Robles, Coleman, Naismith, Barkley, Heitinga, Gueye, Vellios, McAleny, Traore
Follow Séamus Leonard on Twitter @seamusleonard