Derby day decisions

IF tomorrow’s Merseyside derby is half as good as the 3-3 draw at Goodison Park earlier this season it will be a cracker. Derby clashes between big city clubs are all too often tense, tight affairs, ones “for the connoisseur,” to put it another way. The clash at Goodison was an exciting exception to that rule and we can only hope that the Anfield confrontation unfolds along similar lines. Unfortunately, Everton go into the match with a lot of injury problems, most notably to Bryan Oviedo, who suffered an horrendous double fracture in the FA Cup win at Stevenage on Saturday. I was there, having agreed to commentate for a Merseyside radio station, and it was immediately apparent that something awful had happened because every player in the vicinity of young Oviedo started waving frantically for the medics. The Costa Rican, who has made such a big impact over the past couple of months, coming in for the injured Leighton Baines, has had his World Cup dream dashed and it falls to every Evertonian to wish him a full recovery and a return to action next season.

The good news for Blues fans is the signing of a new, four-year contract by Baines, one player who will be going to Brazil this summer – and who will not be joining former Goodison manager David Moyes at Manchester United, as the Goodison faithful feared he might. Baines’s experience and ability will be important at Anfield tomorrow, especially if young John Stones makes his derby debut at centre-back. With Sylvain Distin again absent at Stevenage, and Phil Jagielka taken off at half-time with a hamstring tweak, manager Roberto Martinez will be tempted to pitch Stones into the fire. If he does so, I’m confident his faith in the 19-year-old will be justified. Stones played the 90 minutes at Stevenage, first alongside Jagielka and then John Heitinga, and I was impressed with him. The lad is big and he is quick and he’s good on the ball. He doesn’t simply hoof it. I first saw him last season, playing for Barnsley at Blackburn, and I made a mental note of him then. I am regularly hearing positive reports about the lad and I must say he did everything that was required of him at Stevenage, where the main challenge against lower league opposition was the aerial threat. He handled that comfortably.

Liverpool also have injury issues, amongst them another setback for England right-back Glen Johnson, but Everton’s problems look the greater, with Steven Pienaar, Seamus Coleman, Ross Barkley, Distin, Jagielka and the hapless Oviedo on the treatment table. Roberto last weekend described Barkley as the best young English player around, not only in terms of ability but mentality, too, and what a boost it would be for Everton if he were to return to action against Liverpool after missing several games with a broken toe. Certainly, there was nothing between these great rivals in that pulsating 3-3 draw, which had Goodison Park creaking at its aged seams, and it will be white hot in the cauldron of Anfield, with both clubs going toe to toe to clinch a coveted top four place and qualification for the Champions League. I look forward to the game.

 

Not again, Suarez!

LIVERPOOL’S failure to beat Aston Villa at Anfield has given Everton the chance to leapfrog them into fourth place at West Brom tomorrow. Dare I say it, but for another dubious penalty box incident involving Luis Suarez, Everton’s prospects would be even brighter. Liverpool salvaged a point when Steven Gerrard drove home a penalty, awarded after Suarez went down under Villa keeper Guzan’s innocuous challenge. I don’t think I’ve ever known BBC’s Match of the Day conduct a viewers’ Did he Dive? poll. The result was 60 per cent ‘yes.’ Even Stan Collymore, a former Liverpool striker, accused Suarez of being a cheat on Talksport, though Alan Shearer, in the TV studio, disagreed. I don’t know how often I’m going to have to say this, but for a man blessed with such sublime balance, I’m surprised that Suarez appears to be vulnerable to a proverbial puff of wind.

The fact is, Liverpool’s dropping of two home points gives Everton a great opportunity to reclaim the coveted fourth place. I don’t think Ross Barkley will be fit, but the Blues have plenty of quality midfielders. The question remains, will manager Roberto Martinez strengthen his striking department in this transfer window? I hope so, for if Romanu Lukaku – who tomorrow faces the team for whom he top scored last season – gets injured,  it will be a big problem. Everton have banked £35 million from the sales of Marouane Fellaini and Nikita Jelavic so they do have cash available.

 

Man up, Luis!

LIVERPOOL produced the most free-flowing display I can remember from them for many, many years with the Luis Suarez-inspired 5-0 destruction of Tottenham at White Hart Lane. The performance of Suarez was awesome, scoring goals, making goals and working hard for the team. His dribbling skills put him right up there with Messi and Ronaldo. Now for the negative side of his game! I know Liverpool fans will again accuse me of being blue-eyed when I express my exasperation at Suarez’s antics when he was fouled by Tottenham midfielder Paulinho, who caught him in the chest with his boot. Well, I am not biased against Suarez because he plays in the red of Liverpool, in fact I marvel at the manner in which he is tearing defences apart. But that does not prevent me from being dismayed at the way he rolled across the turf as if he’d been shot. If the referee was in any doubt as to whether it was a yellow or a red card offence, two theatrical rolls and a fist pounding the turf were designed to influence him towards the latter.

Look, it was a high boot and I’m sure it hurt. But, come on, Luis, man up! At one point, I was looking for the sniper in the crowd. Just as at Everton the other week, when he was caught high by Kevin Mirallas and rolled around as if in agony, Suarez was racing around the pitch like a spring chicken within a couple of minutes. It wasn’t so much a recovery as a resurrection. All I’m saying is that if Suarez would cut out the melodrama he would remove the only stain on an otherwise impeccable footballing persona.

Certainly, he and his team-mates have put themselves right in the frame for the fight for the Premier League title – and put Spurs boss Andre Villas-Boas in big trouble in the process. When the Sky cameras focused on the unsmiling chief executive Daniel Levy the image spoke volumes for the predicament of Villas-Boas, who does not seem to know how to integrate the £100m-worth of players bought last summer. It seems to me Spurs had a better Champions League look about them two years ago! Since then, they have lost Luka Modric and Gareth Bale and none of the new signings look close to filling the gaps.

IT was a big weekend for the Manchester and Merseyside clubs, the four of them totalling 18 goals, with rampant Manchester City leading the way with their 6-3 demolition of leaders Arsenal. City in that form, with Silva, Toure, Aguero and Negredo sweeping forward, are virtually unstoppable. Arsenal’s £40m Mesut Ozil was overshadowed by the City midfielders in what was a wonderful advert for the Premier League. I still worry about City, defensively, with De Michelis unconvincing alongside Kompany. However, whereas Arsenal scored three and could have had six, City scored six and could have had 10. Everton were not at their best when putting four past Fulham, but that in itself is a good omen for them. When you win comfortably in those circumstances it has to be a positive sign. Young right-back Seamus Coleman provided further evidence that he is emerging as one of the best in his position in the top flight. A welcome return to winning ways for Manchester United, whose 3-0 at Villa highlighted the defensive problems that are hampering Paul Lambert’s team. Full-backs Luna and Lowton were run ragged, failing to stop crosses, and the fact that three of the back four were booked tells you the struggle they had trying to contain Wayne Rooney and Co. When Danny Welbeck scored, from a header by Januzaj, they were the only two United players in the box – where there were five Villa defenders. That also tells Lambert he has big problems. Great to see Darren Fletcher back for United after a year out in his ongoing battle with illness. In recent years, in all the big games, Fletcher was a must in Sir Alex Ferguson’s midfield, physically strong, good on the ball and blessed with huge reserves of stamina. Rumours were spreading that he might not play again, so it’s marvellous for him – and for manager David Moyes – that he is back in action.

 

TOUGHER AT THE TOP

Another fascinating weekend in the Premier League and I think one thing is already becoming clear: Nobody is going to run away with the title this season. Liverpool’s win against Manchester United maintains the steady progress they have been making since the turn of the year and, though as an Evertonian it pains me a little to say so, Brendan Rodgers’s team could build on their three straight 1-0 victories and mount a challenge to the Establishment at the top of the pile. United won the title last season at a canter, by 11 points no less, but never looked like a formidable team. I don’t think they are going to have such an easy ride this time.

In fact, unless they get Wayne Rooney fit and firing on all cylinders, David Moyes’s task of trying to fill Sir Alex Ferguson’s shoes is going to be even tougher than he and everyone else imagined. United didn’t look like scoring against Chelsea last week and they didn’t threaten much at Liverpool either. Robin Van Persie is a top goal-scorer, but he doesn’t create goals. Rooney does both and it is obvious, on today’s evidence at least, that when Rooney is not playing, United are missing something. Certainly, Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge – who has scored their three goals to date – posed just as big a threat as did Van Persie and the encouraging thing for Liverpool is that their most potent forward, Luis Suarez, is yet to join the fray, once he completes his 10-match suspension, going back to last season – and assuming he isn’t transferred on deadline day.

There was a paradox about the big north London derby between Arsenal and Tottenham, the clash between the big spenders and the no spenders, with the thrifty Gunners emerging victorious and deservedly so. Gunners boss Arsene Wenger has been much criticised for not splashing out in the transfer market and he fielded a lot of flak following the opening-day defeat to Aston Villa. Since then, his team has won four matches on the run and, against a Tottenham team bolstered by £106million poundsworth of recruits, it looked a case of quality against quantity. On this showing, I think Wenger is entitled to claim that Tottenham had no-one who could improve his side. If you like, Wenger’s problem is the complete opposite to that of Spurs manager Andre Villas Boas in that he needs a little more quantity to bolster his squad for the long season ahead. Villas Boas has lost his X factor, namely the finally-departed Gareth Bale, a player who could turn a game on its head with a burst of his pace and power. It remains to be seen if any of Tottenham’s expensive signings can provide that spark now that Gareth has bailed out to Real Madrid. The big question is: Have Spurs bought any game changers? They have certainly lost one in the shape of Bale.

With Suarez back in the team, Liverpool could well join the battle for the top four places. New goalkeeper Mignolet looks a good buy and they have secured the services of the talented Victor Moses on a one-season loan from Chelsea. But I don’t think they will contesting the title come next May. I’m sticking to my prediction that Manchester City will win the big prize, provided they get their base right. City do miss injured captain and centre-back Vincent Kompany and it looks as though they are going to sign a central defender before tomorrow’s deadline. Chelsea won’t lose many matches and United, whose need of a midfielder remains glaringly obvious, will rarely be beaten at Old Trafford. But what separates City from the rest is that they have more magicians in their squad than anyone else. The likes of Toure, Navas, Silva, Fernandinho, Negredo and Aguero should be able to cast a spell on City’s rivals.

One thing I know for sure is that the action so far has got me buzzing with excitement and anticipation for a thrilling Premier League campaign. The swords were being sharpened over the head of Wenger after that home defeat to Villa but it could be that the old fox has lost none of his wiles; the jury on Moyes’s prospects of embellishing Ferguson’s phenomenal work at United remains out; it is still unclear whether Jose Mourinho will be less cautious as returning manager at Chelsea - and the early signs are that Liverpool intend to join the party. Okay, we will miss Gareth Bale. But there is plenty to look forward to this winter. Bring it on.