x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Frustrated foes face off on Merseyside

Liverpool and Everton have similar problems - the question is who can find a solution to them as they take on each other in the "biggest game of the season".

The similarities outweigh the differences. It is not a sentiment that is likely to be echoed on either side of Stanley Park but Liverpool and Everton enter the 213th Merseyside derby with shared problems and identical recent records.

Both have underachieved this season. Both have been decimated by injury. Both have been frustrated by the lack of progress in their quest for new stadia to consign the antiquated homeliness of Anfield and Goodison Park to history. Both managers have been frustrated in the transfer market, a lack of new investment meaning each has made a profit this season. Yet, with 14 points from six games apiece, each has shown signs of a recovery on the field.

Now the neighbours present a mutual test of each other: is this a genuine revival or the latest false dawn? That improved league form has sandwiched disappointing - in Liverpool's case, depressing - FA Cup exits at home suggests caution is required. That Everton, in particular, are almost able to field a full-strength side after an awful run of injuries encourages optimism. That it is pivotal to Liverpool's hopes of a top-four finish and Everton's quest to qualify for Europe again is likely to make the atmosphere still more heated.

Everton's renaissance has a logic to it. Marouane Fellaini is putting his imposing physique to excellent use at the base of the midfield, a fit-again Steven Pienaar is bringing invention on the left and the on-loan Landon Donovan adding purpose on the right. After four months on the sidelines, Phil Neville is able to offer leadership while Tim Cahill, the only Evertonian since Dixie Dean to score three times at Anfield, has rediscovered his goal touch. In addition, with excellent timing, Louis Saha has agreed to a new contract while Joseph Yobo and Yakubu Ayegbeni have returned from Africa.

Given the lack of fluency that was apparent in the draws at Stoke and Wolves, it may be an exaggeration to call Liverpool's run a revitalisation. An improvement in their fortunes, however, has come from an unexpected cast of characters. Chief among them is Sotirios Kyrgiakos, the stop-gap signing at centre-back who was bought only because Rafael Benitez could not afford his preferred targets. Yet a run of games against sides with sizeable strikers have suited the Greek and, given the aerial ability of Cahill and Saha, he assumes a real importance and his resilience has been unexpected.

Benitez should start with the previously derided Kyrgiakos in the centre of defence and Jamie Carragher in his less favoured position at right-back, but his side have five clean sheets in six league games. They have a functional look, using organisation and industry to compensate for the continued absences of Fernando Torres, Yossi Benayoun and Glen Johnson. It is a game plan that David Moyes, in the 600th game of his managerial career, will recognise. It is one the Everton boss has perfected. He may not deem imitation the sincerest form of flattery.

But the means justify the ends, as Carragher said: "This is the one game you would take any kind of performance, as long as you get the win. For me, it [the derby] is always the biggest game of the season. The important thing is that you could never accuse us of lacking desire in these games." Steven Gerrard added: "Merseyside derbies are very quick and frantic in the first 15-20 minutes and the tempo and intensity is very high." So, at least in the city of Liverpool, are the rewards.

But, as Liverpool's captain and vice-captain illustrated, it is a match for uncompromising characters, where the tattooed Cahill faces the battle-scarred Kyrgiakos, where Javier Mascherano's flying feet and Fellaini's infamous elbows are in the midfield, where Scousers such as Carragher and Leighton Baines should collide on one flank and where the respective leaders are proof will to win can be taken too far. Gerrard and Neville share the unfortunate distinction of being the only men to have been sent off twice in a Merseyside derby.

They are statistics to forget in a city where unflattering facts have abounded this season. But defeat brings consequences that may stretch into next season and damage that extends far beyond figures. @Email:sports@thenational.ae Liverpool v Everton, 4.45pm, Showsports 1& 2