English football’s oldest rivalry is coming to Wembley this Saturday, as Liverpool and Everton go head-to-head for the 218th time, this time with a place in the FA Cup Final at stake. It will be the 23rd meeting between the two in the FA Cup, and the sixth at Wembley.
Liverpool are currently edging the Wembley head-to-head, with two wins and two draws, but no one will care about history when the two teams run out in front of a packed crowd on Saturday. So who can lay claim to the favourites tag on this occasion?
Perhaps a more pertinent question than that is, who can lay claim to the underdogs tag?
Everton, following their traditionally slow start to the current season, have demonstrated impressive form in recent weeks. Freed from the shackles of expectation, the Toffees seem to thrive as underdogs and may not appreciate the pressure of being labelled favourites.
Similarly, Liverpool have faltered this season under the weight of expectation following unprecedented spending in the 2011 transfer windows.
Players such as Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing all seem to have buckled under the pressure created by their lofty price tags since signing for the club, and this, their first full season at Anfield, has been one of the most disappointing in the club’s recent history.
Both sets of fans appear to want to be cast as underdogs, reflecting the fact that neither side copes particularly well with pressure and expectation. Recent results between the two have favoured Liverpool, with the Reds having won four of the last six meetings, including both clashes this season, with a 5-0 aggregate.
On the other hand, current league form suggests that Everton might edge it. The Blues have won four of their last five matches in all competitions, keeping four clean sheets in the process, suggesting once again that if only they could start a season well, they would challenge for European places on a regular basis.
With only one point separating the teams in the league this season (with only five games to go), bragging rights on Merseyside this summer could be decided on Saturday. Indeed, following the flexing of the footballing muscles in Manchester and London this campaign (not to mention the extraordinary feats of Newcastle thus far), the entire season, for both Merseyside clubs, rests on the result at Wembley.
Injuries will mean that players from both teams are set to miss out. Jack Rodwell and his perpetually torn hamstrings will sit out the clash, along with long-term Liverpool absentees Charlie Adam and Lucas Leiva. The recent returns to fitness of Glen Johnson and Daniel Agger could, however, provide a timely boost to Liverpool’s defensive armoury.
Perhaps more pressing than injuries, however, is the fact that both sides will be missing one other key player each, through ineligibility. Everton will be without their cup-tied Tottenham loanee, Steven Pienaar, while goalkeeper Jose “Pepe” Reina misses out for Liverpool.
Brad Jones is set to step in for Reina for his first Liverpool start since December 2010, when he played in a Europa League match against Dutch outfit FC Utrecht. The Australian’s appearance between the sticks at Ewood Park following Alexander Doni’s red card made it four goalkeepers in the space of three games for Liverpool—hardly ideal defensive preparation for arguably the biggest game of the season so far.
Beyond that, it is Reina’s experience that may be missed by Liverpool more than anything else, but, with a reputation as a saver of penalty kicks and with the two teams so closely matched, could the Spanish stopper’s absence be most keenly felt beyond the 120th minute?
Everton absentee Pienaar’s return to Goodison Park has been a major factor in the club’s return to form. His ability to link up with Leighton Baines on the left is a key source of creation for Everton that will be sorely missed against Liverpool. Although not short of options to cover for the South African, any replacement will have big shoes to fill at Wembley.
David Moyes could opt for Magaye Gueye, scorer against Sunderland, or the mercurial Royston Drenthe to cover for Pienaar. Although both have shown ability in flashes this season, most Everton fans would agree that neither man fills them with as much excitement as the prospect of Pienaar in an Everton shirt.
Everton do, however, have other attacking options of whom Liverpool will be wary. Despite an injury interrupted start to his Goodison Park career, Nikica Jelavic goes into the Wembley encounter in sparkling goalscoring form, with four goals in his last four games. Tim Cahill stands out as another threat to Liverpool’s chances, with five goals against the Reds in his Everton career to date.
The dark horse for Everton, if selected, could be Royston Drenthe. The Dutch loanee has been hit and miss this season, but following a period of compassionate leave, the stage could be set for him to etch his name into Everton folklore with a performance on the biggest stage. If he is in the mood and on song, he is a hard man to stop.
Liverpool, meanwhile, have two men that immediately spring to the minds of Everton fans. Like Cahill, Dirk Kuyt has five Merseyside derby goals to his name and has already shown that he is a man for the big occasion with his goal in the League Cup final against Cardiff earlier in the season.
Similarly, Steven Gerrard is Liverpool’s leading current goal scorer in matches against Everton, and he too makes a habit of saving his best for the big occasion. Most famous for his performances in finals in AC Milan and 2006 against West Ham, Gerrard would love nothing more than to seal a place in another final with a winning goal against Everton. He already has a hat trick against them to his name this season, so the Toffees will know what to expect.
And then there’s Luis Suarez. As unpredictable a talent as there is in the Premiership, the controversial Uruguayan has a gift with which very few others are blessed. While his performances have not yielded goals in recent weeks, he has the ability to win the match for Liverpool on his own. If Everton are to emerge victorious, they must find a way to stop Suarez.
The most important battle of all on Saturday could be between the two managers. Kenny Dalglish is currently in his first full season since returning to the Anfield hot seat, and he has already delivered silverware in the shape of the League Cup.
Whilst Premiership results have been disappointing this season, general consensus seems to suggest that he is safe in his position for now and that he can go into Saturday’s encounter with nothing on his mind other than trying to win the match.
In the opposite corner is David Moyes, the man considered by many to be the best manager operating in the Premier League based on his achievements with such limited financial resources. The blot on his record, though, is that he, unlike Dalglish, has not been able to deliver a trophy to the Goodison Park faithful. In over 10 years at the helm, Moyes’ Everton have only reached one cup final, losing out to Chelsea in the FA Cup in 2009.
Moyes would love to cement his legacy as a Goodison legend with silverware, but the first trophy can be, and has been, the hardest.
It will be close, but Everton should be slight favourites to come through a tight affair, possibly in extra time. If Moyes can get it through to his players that they can beat Liverpool, that they are better than Liverpool and that they can outshine them on the biggest stage, the Blues will win. That, though, is a big “if.”
Everton’s biggest stumbling block in recent times against Liverpool has been their lack of belief that they can actually beat them. The biggest question of all, though, is not whether Moyes can transmit that belief to his players. It is, does he believe it himself?