06 February 2015

Liverpool at Everton 02.07.15

12:30pm ET, live in the US on NBC

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (h) 09.27.14
4-0 Liverpool (h) 01.28.14
3-3 (a) 11.23.13
0-0 (h) 05.05.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Bolton (a); 2-0 West Ham (h); 0-1 Chelsea aet (a)
Everton: 1-0 Palace (a); 0-0 West Brom (h); 2-2 West Ham aet [8-9 pens] (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Sterling 5; Lallana, Own Goal 4; Coutinho, Henderson, Lambert, Moreno, Sturridge 2; Borini, Can, Johnson, Markovic, Skrtel 1
Everton: Lukaku 7; Naismith 6; Mirallas 5; Eto'o 3; Baines, Coleman, Jagielka 2; Barkley, Kone, McGeady, Osman 1

Referee: Anthony Taylor

Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Sakho
Lallana Henderson Lucas Moreno
Sterling Coutinho

Despite the usual worries about fatigue, there aren't a lot of questions about Liverpool's line-up. Will this be Daniel Sturridge's grand return to the starting XI? Will Gerrard start in his last Merseyside Derby?

It might be more hope than fact, but I expect this to be Sturridge's first start after his five-month injury, after getting around 25 minutes against both West Ham and Bolton. It'd require something of a reshuffle up front. Sterling would drop into one of the two attacking midfielder spots, most likely at the expense of Lallana. Coutinho's certainly not losing his place after that last match. But those final 25 minutes against West Ham demonstrated that Lallana's also an option at wing-back. Markovic's struggling with a minor injury, was unimpressive against both West Ham and Bolton, and can appear to be a red-card-waiting-to-happen at times. Which is a dangerous habit to have in the derby.

But there's still a decent chance Sturridge is left on the bench, with the front three we've seen for a while now – whether it's Lallana or Gerrard opposite Coutinho – to be used as a substitute again. As he was in the last two matches, with Liverpool scoring three goals in the 43 minutes he was on the pitch. As he was in this fixture last season, returning from injury to make a late appearance and scoring the 89th-minute goal to rescue a point for Liverpool.

Neil Jones of the Echo also suggests that Gerrard could be used at wing-back. 'Gerrard could be the best fullback in the world' is a drum I've often loved banging over the last *checks watch* decade or so, but I'm not sure tomorrow's match is the best place for the experiment, especially after he played 90 minutes on Wednesday. I'd much rather see him used as a substitute, coming off the bench to terrifying the noisy neighbors if the game's still in the balance. Sentiment be damned. Also, like Markovic, Lucas has a knock – which is why he was left out on Wednesday; if he's unable to start, Gerrard will play in midfield.

If you thought Liverpool was having a woeful, regrettable season, may I direct your attention to Everton? Competing for fourth place until the final day last season, currently mired in 12th, closer to the bottom of the table than to Liverpool.

Everton suffered four consecutive losses, then played four consecutive draws (one which ended with an exit from the FA Cup on penalties) before finally beating Crystal Palace last Saturday. It was just their second win in the last 14 matches, a streak going back to the end of November.

Injuries to McCarthy and Osman limit Everton's options in midfield, while Howard and Pienaar are also absent. Chances are that Everton's XI tomorrow looks a lot like that which narrowly beat Palace a week ago.

Martinez is almost certain to play 4-2-3-1. The potential quirk is one we saw in the reverse fixture: Lukaku used out wide with Naismith as the central forward rather than vice versa. If that's replicated tomorrow, expect Lukaku to play wider on the left, trying to put him up against Can and Markovic – the area that Chelsea, West Ham, and Bolton all tried to exploit, to varying degrees of success. But, with Everton less likely to play on the counter than they did at Anfield, more likely is the more orthodox: Robles; Coleman, Jagielka, Stones, Baines; Besic, Barry; Mirallas, Barkey, Naismith; Lukaku.

At home, Everton will be much more likely to retain possession, recirculating the ball before spreading play wide, crosses from Baines, Mirallas, Coleman, etc for Lukaku and Naismith. Which could be good or bad, good and bad for Liverpool. Liverpool have slowly gotten better on the counter this season, and will be even better with Sturridge involved. But the more time that Everton have on the ball, the more chances Liverpool will have to make a mistake in defense, even if errors have dried up lately as Liverpool's defense has done brilliantly to limit open play shots. Even with Everton struggling for goals, it'll definitely be a test of Liverpool's defensive improvement. And at the same time, Everton will remain dangerous from set plays thanks to Baines and Mirallas' deliveries and Naismith, Lukaku, and Jagielka's aerial ability.

The immensely fun 4-0 at Anfield last season not withstanding, this isn't a fixture that Rodgers' sides have often enjoyed. The other four derbies since Rodgers became manager have ended level: whether end-to-end 3-3s or 2-2s (both at Goodison) or massively frustrating 0-0s or 1-1s (both at Anfield).

The reverse fixture earlier this season was keeping in that narrative. Liverpool's 24 shots remain its second-highest total in the league this season, absolutely battering the Everton goal for the first 80 minutes. Well, more often battering the advertising boards behind Everton's goal, with only eight of those 24 shots on-target and most of them easy saves for Howard. Balotelli alone took 10 shots, and found the target with just two. But Liverpool finally got a goal with 25 minutes to play thanks to Gerrard's direct free kick and unsurprisingly settled into a defensive shell and should have hung on for the desperate win. And would have, if not for Jagielka's irreplicable strike.

That was a story we'd see repeated this season. Even during Liverpool's improvement over the last two months, putting the damned ball in the damned net remains a challenge, which is exactly what doomed the last meeting between these sides.

And, as I'm sure you're aware, league place means next to nothing in these matches. After all, it's impossible to try to predict what'll happen in derbies.

No comments :