To what extent are Everton favourites?
There appears to be a sense of déjà vu heading into the Merseyside derby as an in-form Everton face a stuttering Liverpool FC.
The blue half of Liverpool sits eight places and six points ahead of Brendan Rodgers’ men, who admittedly did have a wretched set of Premier League fixtures at the start of the season. While constantly overachieving pursuing a top six finish among teams with higher wage budgets and more spending power, Everton under Moyes have struggled against Liverpool.
Despite finishing above their rivals last year, Everton were beaten home and away by the Reds. An individual master-class from Steven Gerrard and a desperately unfortunate red card for Jack Rodwell ensured two vital victories for Kenny Dalglish in an otherwise frustrating league campaign.
It’s extremely hard to give Everton the edge at Goodison when considering their failings against a Liverpool team that constantly struggled to win league matches. While I’m yet to be convinced that under Rodgers the five time European champions are significantly better, they’re certainly not worse than last season.
With David Moyes’ team notoriously hard to beat, and so far this season bar a second half collapse against West Brom, Liverpool being competitive in all their fixtures, it may well come down to which team can convert their chances – another area both this season and last that has let down Liverpool.
Everton perhaps have more goals from all areas of their team, but Luis Suarez remains the biggest goal-threat on Anfield, but like last year has been erratic in front of goal. Finding other players to contribute in that area is crucial to Rodgers and could make the difference in a cagey match. Whether Jonjo Shelvey or Nuri Sahin (whoever plays closest to Suarez from midfield) will need to be netting on a regular basis, especially while Gerrard’s goal threat decreases when playing in the deeper role he’s currently being used in. Raheem Sterling netted his first senior goal against Reading and if he adds goals to his game, the 17-year-old will become an even more valuable asset to the Ulsterman. Goals were hard to come by for Liverpool’s neighbours but Nikica Jelavic’s arrival in January, along with the re-signing of Steven Pienaar and summer signings Steven Naismith and Kevin Mirrallas have changed that.
Another reason I’d be reluctant to single Everton as favourites this weekend is the absence of some of their best players. An unfair suspension leaves them without Steven Pienaar who’s been a revelation since his return from Tottenham Hotspur. His partnership on the left with Leighton Baines is among the best in any position in the Premier League. Also the imperious Marouane Fellaini misses out with a knee problem. Any team would be severely weakened without their two best midfielders especially when they’re as talented as Pienaar and Fellaini. Liverpool are without first teamers too, Fabio Borini’s injury has left them with just one senior striker, while ball winning midfielder Lucas Leiva is once again side-lined. Apart from Liverpool’s farcical striker situation however, they do have greater depth than their rivals, meaning Everton’s absentees may have a greater effect on the final result.
With just four wins in a decade at Goodison Park I feel there may now be a mental barrier for David Moyes team’s playing Liverpool. Against a very ordinary Liverpool team at Wembley last year in the FA Cup, Everton seemed overcome by nerves. Even though they went ahead in that game they played nowhere near as well as they have at the start of this season and looked extremely pedestrian for a team normally associated with grit and work-rate. I was particularly shocked at just how badly they played considering how comfortably and efficiently they handled the big occasion in the quarter final replay against Sunderland, where player for player they out-classed a team who have rarely been dominated since Martin O’Neill’s arrival.
Injuries and recent history mean regardless of the league table Everton don’t start as favourites this Sunday. While two wins against bottom six opposition may have increased confidence in the Rodgers revolution, Everton will provide a sterner test than Reading. Premier League fixtures don’t come much tougher to call than this derby, where the old cliché of form going out the window is extremely applicable. Injuries to key Everton men, mean Liverpool are possibly slight favourites, but all three possible results are foreseeable in this crucial derby.
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