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

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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)