Liverpool and Chelsea should shade cup clashes
'The best in the Premier League era' has become the benchmark in English football these days, as if the European Cup-winning sides of the 1970s and 1980s never existed. But, for what it's worth, this weekend's line-up for the FA Cup semi-finals is pushing hard for that accolade.
Whether English football has improved since the Premier League came into existence is a favourite debate for the bar rooms and so is the supposed decline of the FA Cup since the golden days when unfashionable Sunderland, Southampton, Ipswich, Coventry and Wimbledon rocked the big clubs with a string of cup final upsets.
There won't be an underdog success this year, with the last four all occupying places in the top eight of the Premier League table. Everton are the only team from outside the big six - the group that has produced the FA Cup winners in 21 of the 23 years since Wimbledon's 1988 victory over Liverpool. One of the two other winners in that period was Everton in 1995, so there is a certain predictability about the last four.
Yet, in terms of quality, the semi-finals could hardly be any better. There had to be some casualties at the top when Liverpool were drawn against (and knocked out) the two Manchester clubs in rounds three and four, but what we are left with is a line-up that has been rivalled in only two other years in the Premier League era (1996 and 2009).
The two games could not be more closely matched, judging by the Premier League standings. Everton and Liverpool are separated by only a point in seventh and eighth places, while Tottenham and Chelsea are two points apart in fourth and sixth.
One form line is that Everton and Tottenham have a slight edge on their overall record this season. Everton are further boosted by having much better recent form than Liverpool - 14 points to their city rival's seven over the past eight league games. Going back a little further, to the start of 2012, Everton have won 11, drawn six and lost only four in all competitions, while Liverpool have an inferior record of won eight, drawn five and lost eight.
The same comparisons applied to the Tottenham v Chelsea match show that the superior recent form belongs to Chelsea (14 league points to Tottenham's six over the past eight games) and so does the better record in 2012. Chelsea have won 13, drawn six and lost four in all competitions, while Tottenham have won nine, drawn six and lost five.
Another form line are the head-to-head results and here Liverpool have a clear edge over Everton, having won both league encounters (2-0 at Goodison Park and 3-0 at Anfield). Those results were a continuation of Liverpool's strong long-term record against their neighbours - 12 wins, seven draws and three defeats in the decade since David Moyes took charge at Everton.
Everton are heavily reliant on a clean sheet if they are to stop Liverpool - under Moyes, the Toffees have managed just three draws (with 12 defeats) when Liverpool have scored. With a clean sheet, however, Everton's record for Moyes in Merseyside derbies is three wins and four defeats.
When they have conceded against teams from the top half of the table, Everton's record is won one, drawn two and lost nine, which suggests they will find it difficult to beat Liverpool without a clean sheet.
The Moyes game plan is obvious from the stats: a tight, low-scoring contest is what he needs. Thirteen of the 22 derbies since he took charge have had under 2.5 goals (59 per cent) but Everton have taken something from only two of the nine with over 2.5 goals.
The head-to-heads between Tottenham and Chelsea have both been draws (1-1 at Tottenham and 0-0 in the reverse fixture) and another stalemate would be no surprise. Since Harry Redknapp took charge at White Hart Lane, four of the eight meetings between the sides have been drawn and three of the other four have been decided by a one-goal margin. Five of the eight have had under 2.5 goals.
Another key factor in matches played on neutral territory is the respective away records of the teams, as it is often the best travellers that come out on top. Once again, there is little to choose between Tottenham and Chelsea - if Redknapp's team draw their away game in hand, they will have an identical record to Chelsea on the road.
Liverpool, having won at Blackburn in midweek, now rank better than Everton on away form, although Kenny Dalglish's team have been erratic on the road (seven wins, nine defeats and only one draw). But at least Liverpool have shown they can perform well against the better teams on their travels, having won at Arsenal and Chelsea. Everton, by contrast, have lost six out of eight (with only one win) away to top-half teams. The handicap is the best way to play on both semi-finals, with Liverpool's head-to-head record against Everton tipping the balance in their favour and Chelsea's recent form under Roberto di Matteo (eight wins, two draws and one defeat) giving them the edge.
The number of Cup games Liverpool have played without defeat
TOP 5 BETS
1 Liverpool on handicap
Excellent long-term record against Everton
2 Leicester on handicap
Hosts Millwall have the worst home record against top-half teams
3 Bournemouth on handicap
On a good run, with only two defeats in their last seven
4 MK Dons on handicap
One of the most solid away sides in League One
5 Stevenage on handicap
Hosts Yeovil have lost eight out of 11 at home to top-half sides
Shortlist: Liverpool, Leicester, Leeds, Blackpool, Bournemouth, MK Dons, Stevenage, Atalanta.