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.