After the heavy fixture congestion of the holiday period, the new year brings a break in the Premier League schedule. The break comes in the form of the FA Cup, arguably English Football’s preliminary cup competition. All the Premier League teams join the competition in the 3rd round, which is scheduled for this weekend – starting with Friday night and ending on Sunday night. On Friday night, two goliaths of this competition – Liverpool and Everton – go head to head 22nd time (in FA Cup). Between them, they have 27 final appearances and 12 trophy wins, however, for both of these Merseyside rivals, the last season in the FA Cup was a forgettable one. Both the teams lost by a 1-2 scoreline at home, early in the competition last time – Everton to Leicester City in the third round and Liverpool to Wolverhampton Wanderers in the fourth round. One of them will have to exit in the third round this season as well and Friday night’s game will decide which team will progress.
Seven-time winners Liverpool come into the game on Friday in good form, having escaped the gruelling winter relatively unscathed and without losing a single game during that period. In their last five games, the Reds have won four, scoring 13 goals and conceding just five. Further, the Reds have already signed their primary defensive target – Virgil van Dijk. However, the optimism of a great run of results and of decisive transfer actions has been eroded a bit by the ongoing Coutinho transfer saga. Not only is the breakup of the Fab Four sad, but the continuous chatter about the Brazilian’s move to Barcelona weighs down the fans and possibly the team as well. Jurgen Klopp will hope that his team can focus on Friday’s game to ensure progress in the cup.
Everton have won the FA Cup five times. But this side led by Sam Allardyce is nowhere close to the historic sides that won those five trophies. They are winless in last four, losing the last two matches to Manchester United and Bournemouth. The revival that seemed to have started with the appointment of Sam Allardyce seems to have been nipped in the bud, as Everton continue to struggle to score goals. In 30 games in all competitions, the Toffees have scored only 36 times. But Big Sam can take heart from the fact that one of those goals was at Anfield less than a month back. He will need as much luck on Friday if he is hoping for his team to progress in the competition.
Liverpool remain without their long-term absentees – Clyne, Henderson, Moreno. Philippe Coutinho is also unlikely to feature on Friday – either due to a thigh injury or possibly due to his transfer status. Mohamed Salah did not feature against Burnley due to an illness but even if he is fit, he will travel to Ghana for the African Footballer of the Year awards on Thursday and hence might not feature on Friday. Sadio Mane will also miss the game due to the same reason. Andrew Robertson, Joel Matip, James Milner and Firmino will return to the starting lineup, while the likes of Ings and Grujic will hope for at least good cameos from the bench. New signing van Dijk is also likely to start on the bench.
Aaron Lennon, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Jonjo Kenny, Phil Jagielka, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and James McCarthy will all start on Friday after dropping to the bench on Monday. Idrissa Gueye might also start if he is able to recover in time from his injury. Sam Allardyce is still without Maarten Stekelenburg, Ramiro Funes Mori, Leighton Baines, Ross Barkley and Seamus Coleman.
- In 280 games against Everton across all competitions, Liverpool have won 117, they have drawn 81, and lost 82. In the FA Cup, the two sides have met 21 times (including re-matches) and Liverpool have won 8 times (once at home, thrice at neutral venues), while Everton have won 7 times (all at home).
- While Sam Allardyce was the last visiting manager to win at Anfield, he could not accomplish that feat again when he visited with his Everton side for a league game in December. His team did, however, escape with a fortuitous draw.
- While the Reds have turned Anfield into some sort of fortress this season, having conceded only 4 goals in 10 league games thus far, their record against Everton at Anfield in FA Cup is not that bright. It consists of only one win and five draws.
- Everton have not won a game in any competition at Anfield since September 1999. They last drew at Anfield (prior to the December game) in September of 2014. In the last five home games against their fierce rivals, the Reds have scored 13 goals, while conceding only three.
Injuries to Salah and Coutinho and Sadio Mane’s involvement in Monday’s game against Burnley means that Klopp will have to rotate his attack quite a lot. However, even if the entire Fab Four group is not able to play, one of them will still be around to torment the Blues. It seems likely that Roberto Firmino will get a start on Friday and it is very likely that he will play a key role for the Reds. Having scored 15 and assisted 7 in all competitions so far, Firmino’s attacking form is second only to Mohamed Salah. In the league, Firmino’s xG per 90 and xA per 90 total up to 0.67, which means that if he plays 90 minutes, he has a 67% chance of contributing a goal.
In a team struggling to score, Sigurdsson, along with Wayne Rooney is pivotal for Everton’s prospects. Although purely from a numbers’ perspective, Sigurdsson does not have truly great numbers – just 3 goals scored and 4 assisted so far in all competitions. However, his core strengths – crossing, set pieces, direct free-kicks, are all areas where Liverpool are vulnerable and could concede. Sam Allardyce’s team is not likely to attack a lot on Friday, but we can rest assured that most of those infrequent attacks will flow through Sigurdsson.
Liverpool were expected to win the league game in December very easily but made heavy weather of it. Eventually, they had to settle for a draw. However, the chances of a repeat are slim. Even a weakened Liverpool attack will have enough firepower to consistently threaten Everton’s goal, while the Blues lack any such offensive threat. It should be another well-fought win for Liverpool.