Game to watch – Liverpool v Everton
When Jurgen Klopp held his usual pre-match press conference ahead of the Merseyside derby on Thursday, little did he understand the consequences. At around 3pm, the phrase ‘Mo and Phil’ became a trending topic in the United Kingdom on Twitter.
The hopes of EastEnders fans the world over were soon to be dashed. Rather than a reunion of Messrs Slater and Mitchell, the individuals in question were Salah and Coutinho. Their absences against Everton on Friday were confirmed.
That both will miss Liverpool’s second meeting with their most bitter rivals this season came as little surprise; this is the club’s third game in six days. Coupled with Klopp’s new-found mastery of rotation, and resting his most important players was inevitable, with or without the excuse of injury.
The German will simply be relieved that he has a perfectly valid riposte if and when his starting line-up is questioned. Klopp was declared guilty of numerous crimes, ranging from disrespect to neglect or naivety, for making six changes in December’s 1-1 draw. If Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino join the other members of the ‘Fab Four’ in the stands on Friday evening, there ought to be no such backlash.
Such wholesale changes provide opportunities for those on the fringe of the squad to impress, but also hands a chance for Virgil van Dijk to make his first appearance for the club. The most expensive defender in history has played just 108 minutes more than Andrew Robertson this season, so now might be the time for Klopp to bed in those new shoes he got for Christmas.
How Sam Allardyce would relish that same luxury. A move for Besiktas striker Cenk Tosun is still in the pipeline after brief plumbing issues, with only a medical to pass and personal terms to be agreed. “We might get him registered before the cup if we are lucky,” said Allardyce on Thursday; the deadline for Tosun to feature is Friday lunchtime.
Everton sign Tosun, Sam throws him in the mix Friday, doesn't score, declared shite and worse than Niasse by Saturday 11.30am
Everton that 👍
— Everton Away (@EvertonAway_) January 4, 2018
But this is not to say that the 230th Merseyside derby will be played out by only reserve players and new signings in need of precious minutes. Pride is the short-term reward, while a trophy may be a long-term one. Everton are one of five clubs who might well take the FA Cup seriously, with safety secured and a European place likely beyond them. Klopp will know silverware has to be delivered at some point.
Besides, Everton will not want to make it 16 games without a win against their cross-city rivals. Their last victory over Liverpool came in October 2010, and before that it was February 2009. The scenario on that day? An FA Cup fourth-round tie at Goodison Park, an extra-time goal from Dan Gosling, and millions of viewers p*ssed off because ITV Sport accidentally cut to an advert just before the goal went in. Which is presumably the only reason it’s on BBC One this time.
Player to watch – Romelu Lukaku
One should never wish injury on any player – Paul Pogba learned that lesson last month ahead of the Manchester derby – but after learning that Romelu Lukaku’s head injury against Southampton was not serious, he might well have breathed a sigh of relief. The Belgian could finally miss a match or two.
Even after being sidelined for the majority of the Southampton draw and the entirety of the Everton win, Lukaku has still played the most football of any Manchester United player this season. His 2,480 minutes outranks both Nemanja Matic (2,441) and David de Gea (2,430). No other player has featured for more than 1,996 minutes. Only one Premier League player has played more all season.
Yet Mourinho must be tempted to start Lukaku against Championship side Derby on Friday, or at least introduce him from the bench. The 24-year-old scored 11 goals in his first ten games this season, but just four in 20 thereafter, and none in his last four.
The gamble could backfire, and second-placed Derby could become the latest side to thwart Lukaku. But the potential boost to his confidence that a goal would provide is worth the risk.
Team to watch – Luton Town
Those desperate to fulfil their insatiable need for the gruesome and public murder of leviathans in the annual FA Cup cull have a number of options this year. Fourteen Premier League sides face lower-league opposition, with the most popular tip for a giant-killing coming at the Molineux. Wolves, top of the Championship, welcome Swansea, bottom of the top flight.
The festive fixture schedule will force the hands of many a manager, with Huddersfield (away at Bolton), Bournemouth (at home to Wigan), Southampton (away at Fulham), Watford (at home to Bristol City), West Ham (away at Shrewsbury) and Stoke (away at Coventry) all ripe for an upset. Each will favour Premier League survival over any potential cup run.
— AwayDaysBible (@AwayDaysBible3) January 2, 2018
But League Two leaders Luton have another crucial ingredient any self-respecting David should boast before facing a Goliath. Top of League Two, four points clear of second, with an 11-point cushion to the play-off places, and with former player Nathan Jones excelling in first job as a manager, they have momentum. And 62 goals this season – only Manchester City (64) have more in the Premier and Football Leagues this season.
Couple that with Newcastle failing to advance past the FA Cup fourth round in each of the past 11 seasons, falling in the third round on seven of those occasions, and Rafael Benitez is wondering which of his players is about to pull a ‘Djimi Traore against Burnley’.
Manager to watch – Marco Silva
It was in the third round of the FA Cup that Marco Silva was offered his first taste of English football. Twelve months later, the fall from grace is threatening to be just as dramatic as the initial rise.
That first game ended in victory over Swansea, and while relegation was unavoidable, Watford came calling amid interest from elsewhere. This was a managerial star in the making.
Then came a quite catastrophic run of one win in nine, and Watford have snatched a relegation battle out of the jaws of mid-table. Tenth they may be, but the gap to the relegation zone is the same as the gap to eighth-placed Leicester.
Silva has won exactly one-third of his 45 matches in England since last January, the caveat being that he hopped aboard a sinking Hull ship for his chance at the top table. But the Portuguese is sorely in need of a morale-boosting, momentum-changing win.
The bad news? They face Bristol City in the third round. The Robins are fourth in the Championship, already won 3-2 against Watford in the Carabao Cup in August, and have beaten four Premier League sides so far this season – more than West Brom, and three fewer than Silva’s side.
One-on-one battle to watch – Joe Worrall v Danny Welbeck
“Worrall is the business,” Daniel Storey reassured me when I asked for suggestions as to this section. That is the sort of commendation that sits proudly on a CV.
Just two years into his senior career, the 20-year-old – Worrall, not Storey – has indeed proved himself to be the business. Tall, strong, fast and destined to sign for a Tony Pulis team at some point in the distant future, the centre-half has attracted interest from Everton and Stoke.
Worrall made his first-team debut for Dagenham and Redbridge at this stage of the FA Cup against Everton in January 2016, and has not looked back since. Now a regular for Nottingham Forest, he will be handed the dubious honour of marking a reserve Arsenal striker on Sunday. A fourth start since October for Danny Welbeck, anyone?
Football League game to watch – Colchester v Cheltenham
Of the 16 teams in league action throughout the third and fourth tier on Saturday and Sunday, none are faring particularly well. League Two pits 10th and 22nd, 24th and 18th and 14th and 21st together, while the four games in League One feature teams no higher than 9th.
But beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, and Cheltenham’s trip to Colchester reveals a rather attractive battle for promotion in League Two. The visitors are mired in mid-table, 11 points clear of both relegation and the play-offs. Colchester, on the other hand, are one of eight teams separated by four points in the top half.
Wow my favourite stats site @experimental361’s recent posting tells us that not only are promotion challenging #ColU the youngest side in League 2 they’re second youngest in the whole top 4 tiers! Let’s hear it for the @ColU_Academy & John McGreal. 👏👏👏 https://t.co/GHxdxMBurR
— Bryn Griffiths (@ColUBryn) January 4, 2018
Free-scoring Luton are charging towards League One, with Notts County not far behind. But a complicated tug-of-war behind them has Coventry in the final automatic promotion spot, with Wycombe, Lincoln and the mighty Mansfield Town a point behind. Exeter are in the final play-off spot a point behind them, and then a further point sees Colchester and Swindon closing in.
Victory for the U’s could see them jump from eighth to third, albeit having played more games than their rivals. It’s bloody mad in them lower leagues.
European game to watch – Fiorentina v Inter Milan
It’s what the spirit of Francesco Toldo would have wanted.
Writer to watch – Matt Stead