Back to Wembley for Liverpool after a compelling week on and off the pitch, this time to face Everton in the first semi-final of the FA Cup. Liverpool's won both meetings this season, with a 2-0 win at Goodison and a 3-0 victory at Anfield, but Everton are the side on form, managing to surge past Liverpool in the table with yet another strong late season showing. I'm sure nobody's told you yet that form goes out the window in a derby, so let me be the first. Form's out the window you guys. Seriously.
Which is obviously a good thing for Liverpool, who've struggled mightily in 2012 and only got their
second third win of the calendar year at Blackburn on Tuesday. That it came in dramatic fashion will hopefully serve as a bit of a boost, not only for the club but for the player that managed to get the winner. Andy Carroll's not going to see his Liverpool prospects completely turned around because he got the goal that saw Liverpool beat the 18th-place team in the table, and he's got plenty more convincing to do, but I think we're all hoping that it serves as a launching pad for an improved run of form. Just like we did when he got the winner in the derby back in October. This time it's for reals.
The other big news of the week for Liverpool came via the unexpected purging the owners enacted early Thursday, with Damien Comolli forced out of his post as Director of Football, and further exits for Head of Sports Medicine Dr. Peter Brukner and goalkeeping coach John Achterberg. The timing's strange enough, and while many of us had our doubts about Comolli, I don't think anyone saw a turnover coming so hastily and less than 48 hours before the club were set to play in what could be their last meaningful match of the season.
Liverpool can't afford to do too much navel gazing, however, as Everton pose a serious threat to Liverpool's hopes for a second cup final. As is so often the case, David Moyes' squad has been terrific as winter turns to spring, winning four of their last five and edging past Liverpool into seventh. One of those four wins was the quarter-final replay at the Stadium of Light, which they won 2-0 against a Sunderland side that had proven a tough task, particularly at home, in recent weeks. They added to their tally against Martin O'Neill on Monday, when they put four past his squad in a terrific performance at Goodison.
Moyes will have few selection problems tomorrow, with only cup-tied Steven Pienaar ruled out for sure. Jack Rodwell's been struggling with a hamstring injury, though, and will likely miss out. Other than that Everton are at full strength, and it's unlikely that we'll see the same eleven that took the pitch at Anfield in mid-March. Tim Howard will feature in goal, with Leighton Baines at left-back, some combination of Johnny Heitinga, Sylvain Distin, and Phil Jagielka in the center, and Phil Neville or Tony Hibbert on the right. Marouane Fellaini and Leon Osman are likely to start in the midfield, with the possibility of either Neville or Hibbert pushing forward as well. Everton have been strong up front recently, with January signing Nikica Jelavic in superb form, and Tim Cahill, Royston Drenthe, Magaye Gueye, Denis Stracqualursi, and Victor Anichebe all available as well.
Who starts for Liverpool?
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Gerrard Henderson Shelvey Downing
---Pepe Reina and Doni are both suspended, with the former serving the last of his three-match ban and the latter out for only one match, which likely would have been his only other start in a Liverpool shirt. Lucas and Charlie Adam are the only confirmed absences.
---Glen Johnson's appearance on Tuesday went about as well as could have been expected, with a planned exit on 55 minutes and no apparent re-injury. He should start right, leaving space for the thankfully rested Jose Enrique at left-back. There's a chance that Jamie Carragher still edges out Daniel Agger for sentiment's sake, but after the performances from the Dane in Liverpool's last two, there's no rational reason that Martin Skrtel and Agger don't resume their partnership in central defense.
---There's the usual questions in the midfield, mainly about which two of Jay Spearing, Jonjo Shelvey, and Jordan Henderson we see. There's a chance that only one of the group features---in that case I'd guess Spearing along Gerrard---but with Shelvey one of Liverpool's most impressive performers over the past few weeks, I think he has to start. He and Henderson have shown a promising partnership in the middle, and Steven Gerrard's effective displays on the right could make room for the two youngsters. The left is anyone's guess, with Stewart Downing a bit more likely than another start for Maxi or Craig Bellamy, neither of whom has started many matches in a row. Dirk Kuyt's also an option, especially right, which is a possibility if Gerrard stays in the middle.
---After resting midweek Luis Suarez is a guaranteed starter, and regardless of whether or not it's alongside Andy Carroll, he's going to need direct support. I'm going with Carroll to start with Kuyt and Bellamy available on the bench, and hopefully more consistent signs of a partnership up top that's been more stop than start for most of the season.
What's the most important factor for the Reds?
I made fun of the cliché about form in the intro, but given the combination of derby and occasion, there really is no telling how Liverpool will come out. I think we all know what we'd like to see---determination, commitment, and fight from the opening whistle, and you'd expect nothing less on a such a big day. For all the talk about a season-saving victory and some sort of redemption for their league troubles, what's most important for Liverpool is the same as it's been all season. Showing up, playing football, and having the belief that they're capable of coming away with the victory.
Tomorrow's start time is fairly early for those of us stateside---kickoff is set for 12:30PM GMT/7:30AM EST, but it'll be televised in the UK on ESPN and on Fox Soccer Channel in the US. Streams should be readily accessible no matter where you're at, and we'll be sure to have those posted in the matchday thread late tonight into the early hours tomorrow. As usual, we'll have the team sheets for both sides posted when they're released around an hour before kickoff, and there'll be commentary here and on our Twitter page if you're so inclined. Noel's got you for the post match again, as I'll be celebrating my son's first birthday immediately after the match finishes.
Have a nice end to the week, and hopefully we'll all be celebrating post-match tomorrow.