EXCLUSIVE: Tim Howard on Everton vs. Liverpool – “We’ll be heroes if we win”

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On Saturday one of English soccer’s greatest rivalries will take center stage for the first time in the 2013-14 season: Everton host Liverpool at Goodison Park.

This season the Merseyside derby could not be any closer to call.

Both teams stadiums are separated by the famous Stanley Park, as Goodison sits just 0.9 miles away from Liverpool’s home Anfield. And this year these two clubs, in terms of their ambitions on the field, are also extremely closely situated with both playing attractive free-flowing soccer and aiming for the Champions League. Liverpool are currently in second, while Everton are just three points behind them in sixth heading into the derby.

(PREVIEW: EVERTON vs. LIVERPOOL)

U.S. national team ‘keeper Tim Howard will be aiming to stop Liverpool’s deadly strike duo of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge on Saturday, as the USMNT veteran believes his 17th taste of the Merseyside derby in the PL will have an extra kick to it following superb starts to the season for both clubs.

“I think it will add something extra,” Howard said with a smile on his face. “I don’t think the derby ever needs extra motivation… but yeah I think both teams have been doing brilliantly. I think we’ve quietly crept in there and Liverpool have stayed quite near the top and we’re maybe one result from really getting to that top level. It will be a really good derby, in that regard.”

Howard, 34, has enjoyed yet another stellar season in goal for the Toffees and is currently on a 240 minute shutout streak which has helped Everton surge towards the top of the table under new manager Roberto Martinez. It will be a landmark day for Howard, as he breaks the club record for the most starts in the Premier League by surpassing David Unsworth’s record of 271 .

WATCH: EVERTON v LIVERPOOL LIVE ON NBCSN AND NBC SPORTS LIVE EXTRA ON SATURDAY, 7:45am ET

But the USMNT goalkeeper somewhat sheepishly deflects the praise away from his own brilliant performances and suggests the guys in front of him make his job easy.

“The boys have been great,” Howard said. “If we can keep that going in the derby we will all be heroes. The back four has been playing fantastic, obviously Leighton Baines, Sylvan Distin, Phil Jagielka and of course Seamus Coleman. You’re talking about top international players.”

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Tim Howard has been in impressive form for the Toffees this season and believes another top defensive display against Liverpool could hand Everton derby day success.

However, we all know having a solid defensive unit is much more than just the back four and the goalkeeper playing well. Howard points to two new arrivals being influential in Everton’s defensive success.

“We’ve brought in Gareth Barry and James McCarthy, and they’ve been unsung,” Howard said. “Particularly on the ball people have been talking about how good they’ve done, but you have to look at our defensive record in the fact that it’s not just the back four. There’s that defensive six, we play as a unit. Without those guys breaking things up it would be really difficult to keep the defensive rhythm going. It’s good. We’re in a good rhythm, we’re starting to read each others body language, the communication is really good. We will try and keep that up, it’s been positive for us.”

(MORE: U.S. ‘keeper Tim Howard agrees governing bodies can help with head injuries)

With Martinez’ new system working well at Everton and the Toffees one of a whole cluster of clubs looking to break into the top four this season, Howard believes this Premier League campaign is the most exciting in recent history.

Howard and Everton are aiming to jump ahead of the jostling pack and bring qualification to the Champions League group stages to Goodison for the first-time in history.

“Everyone always talks about the top four spots and there used to be five teams for that, then six teams and I feel like this year there’s probably eight teams that are really going to push for the top four,” Howard said. “There is going to be a couple of really disappointed teams because there’s only four spots for the Champions League. This season there’s really eight contenders and its impressive.”

Howard has been impressive in every sense of the word this season, can the U.S. ‘keeper and Everton keep it going against Liverpool? If they can, it would send out a huge message that the Toffees will be sticking around at the top of the table.

Serie A: Juve keep winning to remain 1 point back of Napoli

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TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus closed the gap on Serie A leader Napoli back to just one point as the six-time defending champion eased past Genoa 1-0 on Monday.

Douglas Costa scored in the 16th minute, the first conceded by Genoa in five league matches. It was a less than convincing performance from Juventus but it was never really troubled, as goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny – standing in for the still-injured Gianluigi Buffon – was little more than a spectator.

“What was important was to win,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said. “At the end there was a bit of nervousness because we were lacking in energy a bit.

“We could have finished off the match in the first half, and again with a couple of occasions after the break. We didn’t manage to so compliments to Genoa.”

The battle for the Serie A title is shaping into a two-horse race. Juventus moved 10 points clear of third-placed Lazio, although the capital side has a match in hand.

“The season is still long and all those who are behind us can still get back into the race,” Allegri said. “It was important to stay in Napoli’s slipstream.”

Juventus needed to win after Napoli beat Atalanta 1-0 on Sunday.

Allegri’s side started brightly and had an early chance to take the lead but Genoa goalkeeper Mattia Perin did well to keep out a free kick from specialist Miralem Panic.

However, it did not take much longer to strike. Douglas Costa passed out left to Mario Mandzukic, who played a delightful return ball for the Brazil midfielder to slot into the bottom left corner.

League Cup semi: Man City take 2-1 lead into 2nd leg vs. Bristol

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Manchester City can move one step closer on Tuesday to claiming their first of four potential trophies this season, when Pep Guardiola‘s men take on Bristol City in the second leg of the League Cup semifinal.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday ]

After coming back to beat the Robins in the first leg at home, Man City must now go on the road and take care of business to reach the Feb. 25 final at Wembley Stadium. As he has done so many times — and so famously — in the sky blue of City, Sergio Aguero grabbed the late winner (91st minute — WATCH HERE) 14 days ago.

For a few not-so-insignificant periods of the game, Bristol were very much the aggressors and appeared more likely to make the score 2-0 than for City to get back to 1-1. Bobby Reid converted from the penalty spot in the 44th minute after her was brought down under John Stones‘ wild, sliding tackle. Kevin De Bruyne leveled things up 10 minutes into the second half, setting the stage for Aguero’s late heroics.

[ MORE: Alexis-for-Mkhi swap complete | De Bruyne’s new contract ]

Since the first leg on Jan. 9, City have failed in their bid to finish the PL season with an unbeaten record before bouncing back to beat Newcastle United on the weekend, courtesy of a hat trick from Aguero — Guardiola quotes, from Sport24:

“I said many times it was going to happen, we can lose, so (it is) important the reaction we have. Still we have 42 points to play (for). It is 14 games. It is a lot of games to play and difficult games like Saturday and like Liverpool. It is important to show the team is still there but I don’t have the feeling we give up.

“We want to go through to the final in the (League) Cup and the FA Cup, so (we have) a lot of games but I think the people have the desire to keep going, to keep going, to keep going.”

[ MORE: One dream January signing for each top-six side ]

Bristol, meanwhile, have fallen on hard times: it’s been nearly a month (Boxing Day, to be specific — five losses, one draw) since Lee Johnson’s side last won a game in any competition, and they’ve fallen from second to fifth in the Championship table — Johnson quotes, from the Guardian:

“We don’t want to be brave losers, we want to compete to win. It’s up to the players to be focused and tactically aware, and who knows what will happen if we can show the same quality as we have shown in the previous rounds?

“We have to make sure we’re really bold. If you’re going to deliver a corner, do it like you mean it. I’d rather fail bold than fail timid. We know we have to score. I hope Pep picks his absolute best team and we can give them a right go. I’m not sure you could go and play an under-23 side against us at the moment and I think he’ll know that.”

The winner of Arsenal versus Chelsea (0-0 after the first leg) awaits in the final.

The 2 Robbies: Alexis-Mkhitaryan Swap Becomes Reality

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe react to the Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester United finally becoming reality (0:20), Swansea’s stunning 1-0 victory over Liverpool (9:20), Southampton’s much-needed draw with Spurs (22:30) and Watford’s decision to part ways with Marco Silva (36:20). The gents end the show sharing their memories of the late English striker, Cyrille Regis (39:45).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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Inter Milan sign Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan

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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan completed the signing of Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan until the end of the season, with a view to a permanent move.

Inter can sign the Brazil international permanently for $43 million plus $3.7 million in bonuses, and said on Monday that option “must be taken up before the end of the season.”

Rafinha, who was born in Sao Paulo, had been at Barcelona since 2006, when he joined its youth team. He spent the 2013-14 season on loan at Celta Vigo.

After nine months out after surgery on his right knee, he made his first appearance of the season last week as a late substitute in Barcelona’s Copa del Rey defeat at Espanyol.

“It’s an important stage in my life,” he said, “and I had a lot of desire to approach this new phase in my career.”

Inter has slipped to fourth in Serie A, 11 points behind leader Napoli.

It could slip out of the Champions League places if Roma wins its match in hand on Wednesday.

“I hope to play in as many matches as possible and help the team to reach our objective which is Champions League qualification,” Rafinha said.