Saturday sees the re-engagement of the Merseyside derby, as Everton and Liverpool lock horns at Goodison Park. The match-up however is somewhat more than the traditional parochial bun-fight it has been over recent years. Although calling it a mid-table squabble would be a little unfair, the results of the encounter over the past few years have certainly had little to do with the outcome of the title. This year is a little different however. With Liverpool lying second and only two points off the top, and Everton a mere three points further back – so, in theory recoverable in this game, although a big goal difference swing would be required – this is very much in the mix at the top of the table. Not only this, but with Everton having the home advantage, it also looks to be a pretty equal contest Off the field, two former Swansea City managers, who have earned their access to the top table of English football by working their way up through the leagues, face up in an intriguing battle of tactics. Brendan Rodgers has been in place for a longer period, and his team is now bedding down into the style he requires. Across Stanley Park, although Roberto Martinez is still settling into the seat vacated by David Moyes, he has quickly turned the Goodison Park squad into a team good to watch and difficult to beat.
Both teams have a solid defences, and outstanding goalkeepers, with perhaps the Toffees having the edge between the sticks. Tim Howard is having an exceptional season, and whether it is due to his lustrous beard, he’s making sure the defence in front of him do not have too many hairy moments. They also have the excellent, and if rumours are to be believed, Manchester United-bound Leighton Baines, and the stalwart Phil Jagielka. The Reds invested in Simon Mignolet during the summer, but he still appears to be yet to fully grow into the club, with some consistent displays marred by occasional aberrations. Rodgers has varied his defence, occasionally opting for a three, and with Everton likely to be deploying the muscular Romelu Lukaku at the apex of their attack, he may well do so again. His main man for the encounter Mamadou Sakho who starred for France on Tuesday and undoubtedly has the physique to deal with the Belgian tyro.
The midfield sees a clash of style and age, with the talismanic Steven Gerrard possibly facing up to the young Ross Barkley. With age trimming Gerrard’s sails somewhat and restricting the frequency of his forward runs, the England skipper has modified his modus operandi and now spends much of his time alongside the reliable Lucas, and seeking to play his passing and prompting game from there. Barkley is a player that really impresses me. It would be wrong to compare him to a younger Gerrard, but there are a few comparisons. He reminds me more however of a different England player, Paul Gascoigne. Barkley has, as did the lost soul of Gascoigne, the valuable ability to run at opponents with the ball and a capability to beat them on either side. As the months go on, and assuming he gets more game time for his club, I see him as a growing force both for Everton, and as a key member of England’s World Cup squad.
It is at the sharp end of the pitch, however, where the destiny of the game maybe decided. Whilst Everton have the muscular frame of Lukaku with support around him, Liverpool can boast the Premier League's most potent duo in Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. An illustration of the importance that the Reds attach too the presence of Suarez can be gauged from the fact that club owner, John W Henry, has despatched his private jet to Montevideo to collect the Uruguayan from his successful World Cup commitments, and ferry him to back to England for the game. It's probably a cost worth every penny. although not everybody's cup of tea, Suarez has returned to the fray, following his biting ban, and shown a level of form that probably makes him the Premier League's outstanding player at the moment - and a must for everybody's Dream Team. Whilst Sturridge's form has stuttered slightly, Suarez remains a consistent source of goals.
The game will probably be close, and should have goals in it. with Suarez back and in harness however, I expect the Reds to come out on top by the odd goal in three, or five. If that's the case, the odds are that Mr Henry will count his 'frequent flyer' points as well-earned.