By Martyn Herman
Liverpool’s Premier League title aspirations will be under scrutiny again on Saturday when they make the short trip across Stanley Park to face city rivals Everton (2.45pm).
The last time Brendan Rodgers’s side took on genuine contenders for the crown they were well beaten 2-0 at Arsenal, a defeat that deflated the early-season optimism at Anfield.
They responded with a 4-0 drubbing of Fulham, however, and as the Premier League cranks back into action after the international break they are only two points behind leaders Arsenal who host high-flying Southampton on Saturday (5pm).
Victory over Everton would put Liverpool top for a few hours at least, although Everton’s start to the season under new manager Roberto Martinez has been almost as impressive.
Martinez’s managerial breakthrough came at Swansea City where the Spaniard introduced a cultured playing style that Rodgers continued when he took the Welsh club into the Premier League for the first time.
Martinez, who was linked with the Liverpool job when Kenny Dalglish left in 2012 only to remain at Wigan Athletic for another season, has quickly stamped his trademark at Everton, championing a more patient build-up to the direct approach of former boss David Moyes.
It is working too, with Everton up in sixth place, five points off the summit having lost only once in 11 games.
In recent seasons, matches between Liverpool and Everton have lacked the edge of a top of the table battle but with the Premier League wide open this year, Martinez says Saturday’s clash has added significance.
“It’s a massive game, it’s a glamorous game, one that is always followed worldwide because of the passion between the clubs,” Martinez, who describes the derby as unique in world football, said in a news conference this week.
“But besides being a derby this match is even more important because both teams are in the top six and have had strong starts to the season.”
Everton have had a slightly harder start than Liverpool, but Martinez has been impressed with Rodgers’s side.
“Their start speaks for itself,” he said. “They are good in possession, they play with physical intensity, they have a real scoring threat,” he said.
“You can see why they have been successful. It’s not an accident. But we are at home, unbeaten at Goodison in 2013 and we have to take this opportunity to start the middle third of the season with a very strong test.”
Both matches ended level last season, with the 2-2 draw at Goodison Park memorable for Luis Suarez’s diving goal celebration in front of Moyes after the former Everton boss accused the Uruguayan of being a diver.
Suarez will be in the thick of the action again and hoping to add to his eight league goals this season, the same tally as his strike partner Daniel Sturridge.
While they have struck up the most formidable partnership in the Premier League, Everton’s Romelu Lukaku has spearheaded his side’s attack with five goals.
Arsenal will be looking to get back to winning ways after their nine-match unbeaten run in the league ended in a 1-0 defeat at Manchester United before the break.
Southampton will be full of confidence, however, after a dream start to the season for the south coast club which has resulted in England call-ups for Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez as well as striker Rickie Lambert.
The Saints have won at Liverpool and drawn at Manchester United and Lambert, who came on as a substitute in England’s 1-0 defeat by Germany on Tuesday, is keen to have another crack at Arsenal’s German defender Per Mertesacker.
“It’s going to be a tough battle, but come Saturday it’s going to be one that I’m looking forward to,” Lambert told Southampton’s website (www.saintsfc.co.uk).
“We’re going to go there confident. We know it’s going to be one of hardest tests to date because Arsenal are playing well at the minute. But we’re confident that we can go there and get something.”
Having dropped five points in their last two league games fourth-placed Chelsea travel to struggling West Ham United on Saturday (7.30pm) looking to re-boot while champions Manchester United, up to fifth after a slow start, go to Cardiff City on Sunday (6pm).
Manchester City host Tottenham Hotspur (3.30pm), who are one place above them in seventh, looking for a sixth league win out of six at home, a contrast to their dire away form which has brought defeats at Cardiff, Aston Villa, Chelsea and Sunderland.