Liverpool vs. Everton: Key Battles to Watch in Merseyside Derby

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistMay 2, 2013

Liverpool vs. Everton: Key Battles to Watch in Merseyside Derby

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    As the end of the Premier League season draws close, with no silverware to play for, the two Merseyside clubs have one objective remaining—for each to finish above the other. One match will have a big say in who manages to accomplish that feat, as Liverpool host Everton at Anfield on Sunday.

    Always an intriguing technical and tactical battle, the two sets of players often clash heatedly during the game, and this year will likely prove no different.

    For two veterans of the game, Jamie Carragher and Phil Neville, it will be their final Merseyside derby, with the Liverpool defender due to retire next month and the Everton utility man leaving the Toffees when his contract expires.

    Here are all the key battles to look out for in the big game on Sunday.

Philippe Coutinho vs. Marouane Fellaini

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    Philippe Coutinho was the star of the show a week ago as Liverpool destroyed Newcastle United, thanks in no small part to the huge amounts of space he was afforded by the Magpies' accommodating midfield.

    It's fair to say that Everton won't be quite so relaxed in their control of the midfield zone, so Coutinho will have to work much harder to find space—and even quicker to pass the ball off to his teammates. No doubt at some point he will switch to the left side, letting Jordan Henderson come infield to battle against Everton's powerful midfield, but Coutinho will almost certainly spend a significant portion of the game in the middle himself.

    For Everton, Marouane Fellaini operated in a deeper midfield role than usual last week, and he will likely take up that role once again for the derby. Strong, powerful and hairy, Fellaini loves the physical battle and will be charged with preventing Coutinho in particular dictate the flow of the game.

    Going the other way, Fellaini could prove a big asset for the Toffees with their own attacks, especially on set pieces if he has to hold his position deeper during open play.

Jamie Carragher vs. Nikica Jelavic

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    Croatian striker Nikica Jelavic has been woefully off-form this season, so wouldn't it just be pretty typical for him to come alive and have an impact in the big match?

    Jelavic has scored only seven league goals this season and has scored only once in the Premier League since December 9, 2012. His strike conversion rate has dropped to a worrying 8.8 percent...but all that will be forgotten if he hits the back of Pepe Reina's goal.

    Charged with stopping him, for the final time, will be retiring legend Jamie Carragher. It will be his 735th senior game for Liverpool, his 30th Merseyside derby and the one game he is absolutely most desperate to taste victory in for the last time.

    He will do anything, everything, to stop Jelavic and Co. from scoring on Sunday.

Daniel Sturridge vs. Phil Jagielka

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    Straight up the opposite side of the pitch, and a man bang in-form for Liverpool. Daniel Sturridge has averaged a goal every 120 minutes so far in a Liverpool shirt and will be leading the line again in the absence of Luis Suarez.

    Sturridge has shown all the skill, movement and finishing up until now that was expected and hoped of him, but against Everton he needs to take his game up another level in the heart and commitment stakes which have, on occasion, been lacking. A brace against Newcastle a week ago should give him plenty of encouragement, and his performance will be key to Liverpool taking three points or otherwise.

    He will be directly up against Everton's best defender, Phil Jagielka, with the England defender enjoying another fine season.

    Tough to beat in the air and on the ground, Jagielka will not give Sturridge an easy game—but he does lack acceleration, and it is here that the striker will have to find his edge. Whether in chasing onto through balls or simply shifting a yard to the side to make room for a shot, Jagielka's lack of mobility compared to Sturridge will be where this game could see goals.

Steven Gerrard vs. Leon Osman

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    The battle in the middle for possession will likely be ferocious and committed. Leon Osman on one side; Steven Gerrard on the other—two home-grown players who prefer to be in the final third, but do an exemplary job for their teams in all quarters of the pitch.

    Gerrard still has a significant edge over his rival in terms of on-the-ball technical ability, but Osman certainly has the engine and the pace to trouble Gerrard with his runs from deep into attack. Lucas and Gerrard will have to be vigilant indeed to prevent Osman breaking through and being a threat in the penalty area.

    Much of Liverpool's construction goes through Gerrard early in moves, and he'll have to be at his best to find space in the tight confines of a derby game to have a big impact.

Stewart Downing vs. Leighton Baines

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    Maybe the most intriguing tactical battle will come down the Liverpool right—Everton's left.

    Leighton Baines' ability going forward is well-known and spoken about, but Stewart Downing has improved in spades over the past few months and is diligent about his tracking back. He'll have to stick close to Baines to prevent early crosses being put over, especially from deep positions, but Downing has the stamina and commitment to do this job well at the moment.

    He cannot afford to let Glen Johnson get doubled-up on behind him, so must be vigilant about his defensive work.

    Going forward, however, Downing should have confidence that he can trouble Baines just as much.

    The left-back hasn't been at his best in recent weeks despite a fantastic season overall, and Downing has been heavily involved in a lot of attacking play from the Reds, culminating in two assists last week against Newcastle.

    His willingness to attack both inside and outside the full-back will be a bonus if Downing is on his game, but it might be that his work rate in the opposite direction is telling in the number of chances created by both sides this time around.