Jan Molby

Everton’s missing stars tilt finely-balanced derby in Liverpool’s favour

It’s always really difficult to try and predict a Merseyside derby, whatever the form of both sides.

If you look purely at results, Liverpool are doing okay, even in the context of their mini-slump. But an inability to defend has crept in, and Philippe Coutinho – who is a huge player in Liverpool’s revival – has lost a touch of form.

As it stands Everton have a better balance than Liverpool at the moment, and are certainly harder to beat than their local rivals.

Everton are harder to beat because they are better defensively. That is the legacy of David Moyes’s time at the club.

Those criticising Moyes will do well to remember that: whatever his struggles are at the moment, when he was given time at Everton he turned the side into a superb defensive unit. And that defensive stability appears to have been ingrained into the club in the long-term.

Roberto Martinez was never able to get that side of things right at his previous clubs, but he has inherited a ready-made back-five and has been able to mould them as an attacking unit without compromising the team’s core strength. A match made in heaven.

However, derby matches like this are often settled by a moment of creative genius; by a magical pass, dribble or set-piece. And, right at this moment, some of Everton’s leading creative lights are out injured.

It is testament to Martinez’s ability to guide youngsters that players like Gerard Deulofeu and Ross Barkley have become such important parts of Everton’s attacking machine. But with both suffering serious injuries in recent months, the onus is now on James McCarthy and new signing Aiden McGeady to provide the ammunition for Romelu Lukaku.

Lukaku is a brilliant player but he is a hold-up man and finisher; someone needs to create the chances. Steven Pienaar is also injured and, while Leon Osman is a very good player, I would say only Kevin Mirallas is currently firing in that department.

For Liverpool, Coutinho may have lost a bit of his fizz but of course Luis Suarez is one of the most exciting players in world football, and Daniel Sturridge has returned from injury in good form.

That gives Liverpool a creative, match-winning advantage, not to mention their excellent record against Everton at Anfield. But while Liverpool are narrow favourites for me, it should be an incredibly tight game and one with goals at both ends – it could be the odd goal in five that wins it.

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I found it bizarre that Mohamed Salah was Liverpool’s main transfer target in this window.

Liverpool have plenty of wide forwards – Victor Moses and Raheem Sterling are specialists in those positions, while Sturridge, Coutinho, Iago Aspas and even Suarez are comfortable cutting in from the flanks if needed. Liverpool even saw fit to let Fabio Borini and Oussama Assaidi leave on loan, and both have been in good enough form at Sunderland and Stoke.

While it’s always nice to bring in a promising, exciting young talent, a 21-year-old Egyptian winger should have been low on Brendan Rodgers’s priority list.

Liverpool are one of the few teams contending for a top-four place where you can say there are blatant gaps in the squad. Now that Emmanuel Adebayor is back to his best, you could even argue that Tottenham no longer need a striker; Everton have strength in depth all over the park; Arsenal may have lost Theo Walcott for the season but, as Arsene Wenger joked, they “have 17 wide players”; Manchester City and Chelsea have too many players.

Liverpool, meanwhile, clearly need full-backs, with Glen Johnson suffering fitness problems and Aly Cissokho not convincing in the absence of Jose Enrique.

There is a problem in central midfield too, with Lucas a hugely important player but out injured again; there is a short-term requirement in terms of squad depth, and a long-term need to replace Steven Gerrard.

Salah appeared a luxury they could not afford – perhaps that is why Liverpool haggled over the price, and lost out to Chelsea. I would certainly be more inclined to look at filling out a smallish squad, and focusing on full-backs and central midfielders.

But Rodgers appears happy with the squad he has, perhaps on account of the numerous youngsters available to fill the bench. That comes with its benefits too, but you worry if they will be able to cope with the workload of a full season.