FOX Soccer Exclusive
Merseyside derby highlights week
The Premier League roars back to life Tuesday and Wednesday with several critical clashes ahead of a jam-packed February calendar. Arsenal face a tricky trip to Southampton; Swansea and Fulham face off in an effective six-pointer; Juan Mata looks to make his debut for Manchester United and Tottenham play host to high-flying Manchester City to highlight a thrilling midweek fixture list.
But all eyes will be on Liverpool, where the city’s two clubs clash in a derby freighted with meaning. Everton and Liverpool are but a point apart in the standings – but a world apart in resources.
The Toffees are enjoying a superb season with new manager Roberto Martinez currently outpacing the man he replaced, Manchester United’s David Moyes, by a full five points while earning praise for the stylish passing game Everton is employing.
This was wholly unexpected and it has made for one of the great stories of the season, with the smaller, scrappier Toffees punching far above their weight. While Everton are extremely reliant on loan signees – something that may come back to bite them long-term – they have been thrilling on the attack, and one of the best defensive sides in the league. In fact, they are better in the back than their neighbors.
But Liverpool are still outside title contenders, a claim that not even the dreamiest Everton fan would make. Powered by Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge and ably backstopped by Simon Mignolet – this season’s best goalkeeper – Liverpool have managed to cover up their flaws and have looked very good against most teams in this league. They will be hurt by the long-term injury to Lucas Leiva (knee) and do not look as fluid or fast a side with Steven Gerrard in the lineup, but the Reds have to be taken seriously if City, Chelsea or Arsenal slip up.
The two sides played to a thrilling 3-3 draw in November, but now the onus is on Everton to break a 15-year duck: the Toffees have not won at Anfield since 1999. They enter this match with some real injury problems. Bryan Oviedo suffered a horrifying double leg break in their FA Cup game this past weekend against Stevenage, adding to a long injury list that includes starlets Ross Barkley and Gerard Deulofeu. Nonetheless, if there is a time to face Liverpool at Anfield, it might be now, with the Reds coming off a uncharacteristically messy 2-2 draw against lowly Aston Villa.
To do so, Everton needs to get something out of a becalmed Romelu Lukaku, the team’s top scorer, but a man with but one goal in their last nine league games. With Seamus Coleman a possible scratch due to injury, Lukaku will also have to shake off his poor away form and threaten what is an eminently beatable Liverpool back line.
After a hot start, Romelu Lukaku's scoring account has hit a skid. (Photo: Stu Forster/Getty)
Elsewhere, Mata’s debut – alongside the possible returns of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie to action – will be the main talking point as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer makes his return to Old Trafford at Cardiff’s helm. Solskjaer is in a relegation scrap with a team that has been badly destabilized by owner Vincent Tan’s mercurial dealings, and while the new manager has been quick to snap up reinforcements – among them United’s Wilfried Zaha -- by rights, this should be an easy three points for Moyes and United. But nothing’s easy for them these days.
Moyes looked a haunted man when he watched his side get bounced out of the League Cup five days ago when United managed to miss four attempts in a calamitous penalty shootout against Sunderland. While the capture of Mata for a club record $60 million is a decent start, there is clearly a great deal of work yet to be done to turn this side around. United have lost three of their last five home league games and look bereft of confidence. Cardiff, who have taken a paltry two points in their last eight road games, are probably just the tonic – but I was Solkjaer, I’d go right for United’s soft underbelly in this game.
Then, there’s Arsenal, who have a chance to put more distance between themselves and the pack at the top of the table against a Saints side in seeming disarray. Key player Dani Osvaldo is suspended after what was described as a “bloody” altercation on the training ground with teammate Jose Fonte. Chief executive Nicola Cortese quit after losing a power struggle with owner Katharina Liebherr, immediately putting manager Mauricio Pochettino’s long-term future in doubt.
But Southampton are unbeaten in their last four games across all competition, halting some of the rot that set in the last time these two teams met – a November fixture at the Emirates that saw Arsenal win out comfortably, 2-0. Unfortunately, they are running into an Arsenal side that is going from strength to strength since they were blitzed 6-3 at the Etihad by Manchester City.
This is a key game for Arsene Wenger’s men as they embark on a brutal February card that sees them face Liverpool in the league and the FA Cup and host both Bayern Munich and Manchester United. There’s no room for error for the Gunners right now, and if Southampton can keep up its on-field recovery, this match could turn out to be a trap game for the Londoners.
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