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Liverpool, Everton ready to take Wembley for Saturday’s FA Cup semifinal


The Merseyside Derby wouldn’t need the “longest-running, first division derby in England” label to attract attention. That doesn’t make it any less true, though they’re not the only facets that distinguish the rivalry. Proximity, facilities (Everton was the original occupant of Liverpool’s home ground, Anfield), prestige, longevity or even primary colors can be used to hype the match. Even a derby neophyte can choose between blue and red.

On Saturday, you can also cite stakes. That’s when the friendly derby hits Wembley for the weekend’s first FA Cup semifinal (kickoff 7:30 a.m. ET). It’s the clubs’ first trip to England’s national stadium since 1989, when the “Mersey Monopoly” was concluding a stretch that saw Liverpool’s clubs win seven straight First Division titles.

On that day, Stuart McCall’s 89th minute equalizer sent the sides into extra time. There, McCall completed his double, though his second was bookended by goals from Liverpool substitute Ian Rush, the Welshman’s second giving the Reds an emotional victory five weeks after the Hillsborough disaster.

When they met in 1989, Mersey’s clubs were among the top tier’s elite. Now, they’re better described as “on the edge of Europe” (if Liverpool wasn’t already qualified for Europa League). Overcoming their now characteristic early season stumbles, Everton’s risen to seventh in league. To the embarrassment of their red rivals, the Toffees sit one spot above Liverpool. Despite spending commensurate with a league title-contender, Liverpool sits an awkward eighth, one point behind their cash-strapped rivals.

Everton’s limitations, born from their shallow pockets, are most evident up front. Whereas Liverpool’s brought forwards Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez in the last 14 months (financing the moves with the sale of Fernando Torres), Everton’s sold Louis Saha while bringing in Scotland-based Croatian (Nikica Jelavic from Rangers) and a relatively unknown Argentine (Denis Straqualursi from Tigre). Liverpool forked over £57.8 million for their duo. Everton spent an estimated £5 million on Jelavic, while Straqualursi’s on loan.

Despite their restraints, Saturday will see an Everton side with uncharacteristic depth. For years fans have seen the Toffees make due with thin squads, but on Saturday they could see Sylvain Distin, Tony Hibbert, Victor Anichebe, James McFadden and Stracqualursi as potential substitutes. It’s not depth Manchester City would envy, but for David Moyes, it provides an uncustomary number of options.

The January acquisitions of Jelavic, Darron Gibson (Manchester United), Stephen Pienaar (Tottenham) have allowed David Moyes to keep his team fresh through the notoriously trying Premier League winter, but against a Liverpool defense that has proved one of the league’s stingiest, Everton’s newest threat must maintain his hot streak. Jelavic, who scored 31 in 45 in the Scottish League, is already only one goal off the club’s league high-mark. That Anichebe leads the Toffees with only five Premier League goals says everything about Everton’s attacking options.

Scoring won’t be much easier at the other end of the park, where an impressive array of talent will try to contain a Liverpool attack that’s done well to contain itself. Phil Jagielka and John Heitenga are likely to start in front of Tim Howard, with Phil Neville and Leighton Baines in the wide positions. Shielding the defense will by Marouane Fellaini and Gibson. That rear-guard that’s more than capable of containing the Premier League’s 11th-ranked attack Should they break down, there’s always Tim Howard.

But despite Liverpool’s goalscoring problems in league, they’ve managed to find goals against Everton. In each of the last three derbies, Liverpool’s scored at least two goals, including a Steven Gerrard hat trick the last time they met (Mar. 13’s 3-0 win at Anfield). Rested mid-week at Blackburn, Gerard’s sure to be primed for Saturday’s game.

“It’s a proud day for me to lead the lads out at Wembley again and it’s a proud day for the city,” Gerrard told the media on Thursday. “It’s a massive game and it’s been a long time since Liverpool played Everton at Wembley so it’s a fantastic occasion for the supporters.”

If Wembley’s full, it will be the largest crowd to see a Merseyside Derby since 98,000 watched the 1986 FA Cup final. Then, two second half goals from Rush countered Gary Lineker’s opener, helping to make King Kenny the first player-manager to win the trophy.

Should Liverpool win Saturday, Dalglish will get his chance to add a third FA Cup to his managerial resumé.

Third goalies, selection issues, and words from the captain – they’ll be more a little later from Liverpool’s side of Saturday’s FA Cup semifinal. We’ll also take a look toward Sunday, when Chelsea and Tottenham complete the FA Cup’s rivalry weekend. (Update: And now here it is. -rf)

“Overweight” Costa comes to Mourinho’s defense

Diego Costa, Chelsea FC
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Diego Costa says he and his Chelsea teammates are to blame for Chelsea’s horrid start to the 2015-16 Premier League season.

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Speaking Thursday, during a bit of downtime over the current international break (Costa was left out of Vicente del Bosque’s squad for Spain’s final two EURO 2016 qualifiers this week), Costa placed the majority of blame at the feet of the entire team, but went on to most harshly critique himself for coming into the season unfocused and “overweight.”

Costa, on his lack of fitness and form to begin the season — quotes from the Guardian:

“We know we’re not in the form we were supposed to be at the beginning of the season. We need to blame the players because we came back from holiday very confident, thinking we could go back into how it was last season, and then realized the team was already in a bad situation.

“I’m going to be very honest: maybe a few weeks ago, five or six weeks ago, I was not on top of my game. At least physically. We talk within the players and we know that, maybe at the beginning, we were not 100 percent as we were supposed to be when we got here. I got injured at the end of last season and then I went on holiday. Maybe I got out of my diet and, when I came back, I was not the way I was supposed to be. I was a little bit overweight. That affected my game. You can be selfish and blame it on the manager but I’m not going to do that. I’m responsible 100%, and so are the other guys.

Given that Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said on Thursday he doesn’t quite know what’s wrong with the defending Premier League champions, hearing someone — anyone — speak up and explain the club’s worst start to a season in 37 years will surely be a welcome sound to any Blues supporter’s ears.

[ MORE: Liverpool appoint Klopp as manager | Allardyce to Sunderland? ]

Costa, who is eligible to return from suspension next weekend when Aston Villa visit Stamford Bridge, has scored just one goal in league play this season (six appearances) after scoring 20 in 26 games last season.

Sam Allardyce to open talks with Sunderland

Sam Allardyce, West Ham United FC
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Now that Liverpool have selected and named their new manager, it appears Sunderland are finally ready to move forward with their own managerial search. (That’s clearly a joke, because it implies Liverpool and Sunderland ever duke it out for the same managerial candidate.)

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Anyway, the Black Cats will have to hire someone to replace the recently-departed Dick Advocaat at some point. We all knew that, despite the fact he’s probably earned a shot at that level, Bob Bradley was never really going to be considered for the job. With that in mind, if you’re not going to endear yourself to the entire United States of America with this hire, you might as well go for the best unemployed manager who’ll actually consider your approach.

That’s what Sunderland chairman Ellis Short appears to have done, as it was reported Thursday that despite an initial reluctance from Sam Allardyce — let’s be honest, he actually was holding out hope for the Liverpool job — the 60-year-old most recently in charge of West Ham United was willing and ready to enter into negotiations with the northeastern club.

One of the major sticking points during Sunderland’s courting of Allardyce is expected to be his demand for autonomy in the transfer market as well as a sizable transfer budget to sign his own players during the January window.

[ MORE: Advocaat: Sunderland squad too thin, chairman to blame ]

Allardyce seems like the no. 1 guy you’d like to bring in to steady a capsized ship — cough Sunderland cough — in any situation. Not only does he have a successful track record in the Premier League, but he’s the kind of no-nonsense leader a club like Sunderland so desperately needs as they find themselves in yet another relegation battle just eight games into the new season.

Short hopes to have Allardyce signed, sealed and delivered when the Premier League returns to action next weekend. In that event, Allardyce’s first game in charge of Sunderland would be a trip to West Bromwich Albion. His first home fixture? Home to Tyne-Wear derby rivals Newcastle United, a club whose boisterous fanbase still holds a great deal of disdain for Big Sam. Sometimes the football gods really are looking out for us.