50-50 Challenge: Liverpool vs. Everton

Posted by David Usher and Luke O'Farrell

Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers and Everton manager Roberto Martinez.GettyImagesLiverpool boss Brendan Rodgers and Everton manager Roberto Martinez.

In the first of our new 50-50 challenge series, club experts David Usher and Luke O'Farrell face off ahead of Tuesday's Merseyside derby, when Liverpool host Everton at Anfield in the Premier League.

David is one of ESPN's resident Liverpool experts and is the founder and editor of the popular Liverpool fanzine and website The Liverpool Way. He has written two books on the Reds, "The King's Last Stand - The Final March with Kenny's Army" and "Like I Say ... The Story of the 2012-13 Season."

Luke is ESPN's expert on all things Everton. A regular at Goodison Park, he is an Evertonian with an interest in the tactical and statistical side of the game. He also writes for EPL Index and pens the "ramblings of a cynical Evertonian" on his View from the Royal Blue Mersey blog.

Both writers will address the same topics, so here we go:

AllsportAnfield: The venue for the 222nd Merseyside derby.

CLUB FORM
David Usher: Liverpool's current form is somewhat patchy to say the least, which makes it difficult to predict what will happen. Scoring goals is not a problem, but preventing them most certainly is, which means most Liverpool games are on a knife edge. Only Manchester City have scored more goals than Brendan Rodgers' men, but as prolific as they have been, not even Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge can be expected to score two or three goals every game. Liverpool have conceded nine goals in their past five Premier League games, with only one clean sheet in that time. The Reds are generally playing quite well, but injuries at both fullback positions and to an already wafer-thin midfield corps are beginning to take their toll.

Luke O'Farrell: Previous trips across Stanley Park were synonymous with an unjustified, unnecessary caution. Therefore, Everton head into the 222nd Merseyside derby aiming for a first win at Anfield since 1999. With Tottenham facing free-scoring Manchester City on Wednesday, this is the perfect time for the Blues to steal a match on their Champions League competitors. One or two slip-ups aside, namely the home loss to Sunderland on Boxing Day and the disappointing second-half showing at West Brom, the Toffees are in good form approaching this one. Having coasted through successive rounds of the FA Cup by a 4-0 scoreline, recent league form shows two home wins and two draws on the road.

Michael Regan/Getty ImagesLuis Suarez: Is he the best player in England right now?

KEY STRENGTH
DU: Easy one this. Suarez is unquestionably the best player in England and arguably the equal of anybody in Europe so far this season. Sturridge isn't quite at that level, but when fit, he's been as hot as anybody in England outside of Suarez and perhaps Sergio Aguero. In 16 games in all competitions, Sturridge has plundered 14 goals and has found the net in each of the three fixtures he's featured in since his return from injury. Take away that six-week layoff through injury and he may well be challenging Suarez for the Golden Boot. Those two are without doubt the best thing Liverpool have going for them.

LO: When Roberto Martinez arrived on Merseyside, he did so with a reputation of style over substance; Wigan played eye-catching football, but the defending bordered on comical more often than not. But as this campaign progresses, Everton are displaying a talent for matching passing football with resolute defending.

In spite of recent injuries taking their toll on this well-drilled defence, with Seamus Coleman and Bryan Oviedo ruled out and doubts over Sylvain Distin and Antolin Alcaraz, replacements such as John Stones are plugging the gaps effortlessly. Without key players in numerous positions, it is imperative that the defence maintain its best form on Tuesday against Suarez and Sturridge. Everton kept the duo relatively quiet at Goodison, yet both still found their way onto the score sheet.

Bryan Oviedo Everton celeb StokePA PhotosInjured Bryan Oviedo will be a big miss for Everton.

KEY WEAKNESS
DU: This one's easy too. Liverpool simply can't stop conceding goals. Considering the wealth of options at Rodgers' disposal, the centre of the Reds defence has been far from solid this season. The manager has been unable to settle on a preferred pairing and hasn't been helped by untimely injuries to Daniel Agger and Mamadou Sakho. Just as significant have been the lack of stability at fullback and the recent loss of form of previously impressive goalkeeper Simon Mignolet. Throw in a lightweight and injury-hit midfield and the net result was perhaps inevitable. Romelu Lukaku will certainly be fancying his chances of getting back among the goals at Anfield.

LO: The biggest weakness at present, and the most likely reason for a continuation of this wretched Anfield record, is an injury list that continues to rise. Everton could be without as many as 10 first-team players for the match. Despite the protestations of the ultra-positive Martinez to the contrary, there remains a distinct lack of depth. The midfield is feeling the strain of late, especially with the loss of the versatile Oviedo on Saturday. Derby day is likely to come too soon for Gerard Deulofeu, although there is hope that one, or both, of Ross Barkley and Steven Pienaar could deliver a timely boost with a return to fitness.

Raheem Sterling appears set for a long-term stay at LiverpoolGettyImagesRaheem Sterling has rediscovered his form for Liverpool.

X FACTOR
DU: Raheem Sterling. The winger has completely turned things around in recent weeks and is currently in the form of his life. He had found his first-team opportunities limited earlier in the season, but the injury to Sturridge opened the door. An awful display at Hull did little to suggest he was up to the task, but Rodgers stuck with him. Over the next few games, Sterling slowly got better and better until he exploded all over Spurs at White Hart Lane. He hasn't looked back since. After a 12-month spell in the wilderness, Sterling is now back to playing with the aggression and lack of fear he showed when he first broke through as a 17-year-old. Having been rested for the Bournemouth game over the weekend, the teenager should be raring to go against Everton. With the Blues no doubt focusing on Suarez and Sturridge, perhaps it will be Sterling who does the damage.

LO: Fitness permitting, Barkley could be the difference for those in royal blue. Capable of playing the kind of through balls that the out-of-sorts Lukaku thrives on, Barkley tends to bring the best out of the burly Belgian forward. Full of purposeful running and never afraid to try his luck from distance, Barkley adds another dimension to this Everton side. Should Barkley fail to recover, attention will turn to the mercurial Kevin Mirallas. Thriving in a central position of late, the former Olympiakos player is hitting form at just the right time.

AllsportPlayers such as enigmatic Kevin Mirallas will need to deliver for Everton.

PREDICTED OUTCOME
DU: A close game with plenty of goals. Both sides are hampered by injuries, and it may come down to which team deals with that best. Where this derby game differs from those of the previous decade is that Everton now have a manager who will go to Anfield with the idea of trying to win, rather than simply looking to avoid defeat. That's not to say they'll go all-out attack, but it won't be the all-out defensive approach we saw from David Moyes in this fixture.

For their part, Liverpool know only one way to play. It's simply not in their locker to try to be cagey. Even if the Reds were to go a couple of goals up early on, the game would still be in the balance because of the Reds' inability to keep clean sheets. Suarez has a fine record against Everton and the Blues will do well to keep him quiet, but the same is true of Lukaku, who has had a lot of joy against Liverpool with both West Brom and Everton. I'm going for a 3-2 Liverpool win, but I wouldn't be shocked if it went the other way as this one really is wide open.

LO: Much depends on the walking wounded. The visitors will fancy their chances should several of the injury doubts pass fitness tests. If the majority fails to return, though, then the extent to which Everton's depth stretches will be fully tested. This team can cope without one or two; whether it can cope with almost a full team on the sideline is a question soon to be answered. As such, this may be another gritty one for Martinez & Co.

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