After two successive derby draws last season, the rivalry has a different complexion to it this time around: Having finished outside of the European places last May, Liverpool enter this fixture second in the Premier League table, while Everton, with 20 points in hand, are just a solitary point behind fourth-placed Chelsea.
As we look forward to a Merseyside derby with a renewed significance, let’s look at five areas—outside of focus on Liverpool’s Luis Suarez-Daniel Sturridge strike partnership and Everton’s in-form Romelu Lukaku—where the points might just be won on Saturday.
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Full-Backs and the Flanks
Let’s start first with a position that both Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers consider to be integral to their style of play: the full-backs.
With both managers preferring wingers that cut in and build through the middle, the full-backs figure prominently in the tactical setups of both Everton and Liverpool—Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines have been every bit as impressive and important as the Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique duo over at Anfield.
And with Enrique out with a knee injury (according to BBC Sport, he will likely face surgery), Liverpool’s deputy left-back—whether it’s Aly Cissokho or Mamadou Sakho—will face a battle on his hands against Coleman and the talented Kevin Mirallas.
Johnson and Baines over on Everton’s left flank will be a battle between two of England’s most all-rounded full-backs, and will be equally mesmerizing. We can’t rule out a Baines free-kick or a Johnson stunner as the match-deciding goal either.
Steven Gerrard and His Young Pretender
That’s because in Steven Gerrard vs. Ross Barkley, we have the makings of a battle between the present (and soon-to-be past) and the future of the England central midfield.
Everything that Steven Gerrard is and used to be—the influential midfield playmaker, talismanic captain and erstwhile match-winning driving force—Ross Barkley, at 19 years of age, is currently aspiring to emulate.
And everything Barkley has been for Everton this season—a young, energetic talent with a penchant for the spectacular, and a snappy attitude to boot—Gerrard wishes he still had in his locker as a precocious teenager.
A changing of the guard, one that Liverpool fans surely wish was happening at Anfield instead of the derby, could also be pivotal in determining the result on Saturday.
Potential Match-Winners off the Bench
But it’s not just the starting XI that will influence proceedings, especially given the talent present in both squads these days. The match could easily be affected by a managerial masterstroke.
Let’s look at the home bench first, where on-loan Barcelona starlet Gerard Deulofeu is clearly the danger man for the Reds to keep an eye on. His pace, dribbling and eye for goal will be a threat to the Liverpool defence—the No. 10 might even find himself in the starting lineup on Saturday.
Outside of Deulofeu, Everton also have Steven Naismith, who scored the winner against Chelsea back in September, and the admittedly short-of-confidence Nikica Jelavic to call on. Three goalscoring options off the bench, then. Not too shabby.
Quite on the contrary, Liverpool don’t have any strikers to call on, but they do have one of the league’s best strike partnerships in Suarez and Sturridge, of course. Victor Moses and Raheem Sterling are valuable attacking options that will help open up the midfield for SAS and Philippe Coutinho to push through the middle and attack.
Luis Alberto and Joe Allen also help add a sense of calm to the midfield possession play and could be crucial in changing the tempo of the game.
The Swansea Old Boys
Indeed, it was Martinez who implemented the aesthetically pleasing and now-famous passing style at Swansea, and Rodgers who continued that legacy and brought the Swans into the Premier League for the first time.
With their similar footballing philosophies of emphasizing technique and passing on the ground, Martinez and Rodgers share one other unique trait: Both were linked with the Anfield hot seat in the summer of 2012.
It was Rodgers who ended up receiving the offer, of course, which potentially makes Saturday a chance for Martinez to settle a personal score with his predecessor at Swansea. It’s already been referenced in the South Wales Evening Post.
The Daily Mail tells us that Martinez has never beaten Rodgers in the league, with the latter winning four and drawing one of their five meetings. Let’s see where the record stands at the end of the 90 minutes.
Referees—and the Fat Lady
Suffice it to say that the men with the whistles have been at the center of the past two Merseyside derbies.
For Liverpool fans, this fixture last year should’ve yielded all three points to the Reds—Luis Suarez’s would-be winner was wrongly chalked off for offside in injury time—while Everton fans will have been incensed at Sylvain Distin’s own ruled-out effort in the reverse fixture in May.
And it’s not only the ruled-out goals: Since the start of the Premier League, the Merseyside derby has seen more red cards than any other matchup, making the referee a central figure in such matchups. According to the Mirror, Phil Dowd will be officiating the 221st derby.
There’s also the small matter of luck. Lady Luck will look to make her presence felt in a pivotal game like this, but that’s the subject of a totally different analysis.
This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.