The stage is set for Everton's first meeting with Liverpool in the FA Cup semis since 1977, one of the most highly-anticipated and high-stakes derby games in recent times. The entire city of Liverpool has been divided into its blue and red halves over the weeks preceding this 218th game between the two clubs as the respective managers have claimed to be focusing on their Premiership fixtures. However the long wait is now over, and the tension has built up to a fever-pitch, with both teams carrying the heavy weight of expectations into the Saturday noon-time game.To add to that is the fact that the game comes a day before the 23rd anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster and we have a perfect storm of emotion building up for this particular game.
With just hours to go now before kickoff, let's cut through the hype and publicity, name and fame, and get to what really matters - who's going to be playing and what can we expect to happen? Keep it here after the jump for more.
As much as this is a rivalry and brings all the pressure-cooker atmosphere that a derby game brings, it also is an excellent clash of contrasting styles, grit versus skill, determination versus talent, and sheer hard work with nothing left behind. Everton come into the game in fine fettle with four wins in their last five, scoring twelve goals and conceding only two in the process. Liverpool have been miserable with only two wins in their last ten Premiership games. Now take that all the information regarding the form book and anything else about the current goings-on and pile neatly on your desk, and then dispose of it in the nearest wastepaper basket. For a game like this, nothing else matters. An FA Cup semi-final is a rare and treasured game in any player's heart, while a derby game is played with equal amounts of passion and fervor. But a derby Cup semi? Any player you ask will tell you that they would come back from the dead to play that fixture were they named in the starting XI.
Team News -
David Moyes is going to be missing the services of Steven Pienaar on the left side of midfield as he is Cup-tied, a double blow especially since his partnership with Leighton Baines has been a primary source of creativity for the Blues. Midfielder Jack Rodwell has suffered a relapse to his hamstring injury and will not be in the squad. Baines as well as Darron Gibson, Tim Cahill and the Davor Suker-esque striker Nikica Jelavic were all rested for Everton's Easter Monday game against Sunderland and should be ready to go Saturday.
Kenny Dalglish has had a tumultuous build-up to the game, losing the services of starting goalie Pepe Reina and backup Alexander Doni through suspension, as well as the news that director of football at Anfield Damien Comolli has left the club. Both Charlie Adam and Lucas Leiva are long-term casualties and will miss the game.
Keys To The Game -
The Blues will be looking to start fast, throwing everything they have at Liverpool's goal especially considering that Jones is not a regular starter between the sticks and looked suspect against Blackburn on Tuesday. Jelavic should be an automatic start at striker while Cahill has had a revival of sorts in recent times in his role of attacking midfielder pressing the opponents deep in their half. The signing of Gibson and his solid play in the middle of the park has allowed Marouane Fellaini more creative license in the offensive half. These three will need to be at their best for Everton to have any chance of holding the ball and controlling the game.
Leon Osman has been full of vision in his last few appearances and should take the right wing job ahead of the lost-lately Seamus Coleman. Osman versus Jose Enrique could be a decisive battle in this game. Moyes' biggest selection headache should be on the left - should he use Royston Drenthe's raw pace or Magaye Gueye with his consistent play. Victor Anichebe has been the super-sub, should he start and shed that moniker?
In defence Johnny Heitinga has formed an excellent pairing with Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka will likely be watching from the bench. Leighton Baines is another name that can be inked in while Phil Neville will probably start at right back in place of Tony Hibbert.
For Liverpool, both Glen Johnson and Daniel Agger played during the week and should be fit to start. How they handle Everton's crossing game will play a determining factor towards their success, especially with the inexperienced Brad Jones in goal.
Andy Carroll got the winning goal on Tuesday and should partner Luis Suarez upfront, keeping Dirk Kuyt on the bench. Steven Gerrard does his best work behind the front two strikers, and as he showed in the last game between the two, often pops up in support of the attack and possesses a blistering shot to boot.
The game will be refereed by Howard Webb who also was in charge of the World Cup Final in 2010, and Dalglish has already made it a point to complain long and hard about the apparent non-calls his team has been receiving. Moyes refused to get drawn into the scandal, and instead has been busy insisting that the neutrals across the country will be rooting for the hardworking underdog team that he has built at Goodison.
Here's hoping for a fantastic football game, one that is fairly and consistently refereed and also one that lives up to the fine tradition that the many Merseyside derbies preceding it have shown.. COYB!