FOOTBALL: Smith savours Merseyside duel

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AS LIVERPOOL travel across Stanley Park to meet Everton in this afternoon's Merseyside derby, it would be understandable if they did so with some trepidation. They have not beaten their neighbours at Goodison Park since September 1990 and have to look back to March 1994 for the last time they managed a victory over them at Anfield.

To make matters worse, should they lose this afternoon, Liverpool will find themselves overtaken in the League by their blue rivals. "It's not been an ideal preparation with so many players away on international duty," Roy Evans, one of Liverpool's co-managers, said yesterday.

Walter Smith was in more buoyant mood and undaunted by what faces his Everton side, who, although unbeaten in seven games, have yet to score a goal at home this season.

"Having lived through Glasgow derbies, I can identify with Liverpool and I know what derby games mean to the region," Smith said. "In four of the last five seasons, Everton have been battling against relegation but they have performed well in the derbies. Those players have shown through their derby results that they are capable of raising their games.

"As their manager, I would like to see them do that in every game, not just against Liverpool."

To aid his side's attempt to break their home scoring duck, Smith has at his disposal the talents of his new signing, the Ivory Coast striker Ibrahim Bakayoko. With Nick Barmby on the injured list and Danny Cadamarteri, John Spencer and Mickael Madar yet to impress Smith, Bakayoko is likely to be given a baptism of fire today alongside Duncan Ferguson.

Not that the prospect seems to be worrying the ex-Montpellier man. "I think I proved myself in France with the amount of goals I scored," Bakayoko said. "I was the second highest scorer last season and scored four in six games this season before coming here. Now I want to adapt quickly to English football and do as well here. I have played in games against Olympique Marseilles in front of 50,000 fans so I will be used to the atmosphere."

Everton's injury and suspension problems will not help their cause - Slaven Bilic is out with a hip problem and Olivier Dacourt and Marco Materazzi are suspended - but Liverpool have problems, too. Phil Babb's absence with a back injury will leave greater then usual problems in the centre a defence and Steve McManaman is doubtful with an Achilles problem. With Michael Owen likely to be tired after England duty and Robbie Fowler still short of full fitness, the deficits in manpower might be evenly balanced. Four of the last five Merseyside derbies have finished 1-1 and it would not be surprised if honours ended even today.

The Premiership leaders by six points, Aston Villa, travel to meet a West Ham side which will still be feeling the effects of John Hartson's training ground kick on Eyal Berkovic. Despite a public reconciliation between the two at a training session yesterday afternoon, doubts still persist over whether the Israeli's heart is really at Upton Park. The visiting Villans, by contrast, have shown remarkable solidarity and commitment to their cause this season, typified by Gareth Southgate signing a five- year contract yesterday. Their unbeaten away record will no doubt send them into the game with extra confidence.

Villa have breathing space at the top whatever happens today, a situation Manchester United's Alex Ferguson will not want to see persist too long. With Peter Schmeichel, Ronny Johnsen, Denis Irwin and David May injured, Nicky Butt banned for one match, and other players recovering from international duty, he could be forgiven for making pre-emptive excuses lest his men fail him. Not a chance. "We have a few players missing, but with the size of the squad that we have got, we should cope."

Coping is probably not something other sides will manage today, not least Southampton, who travel to Arsenal, and Charlton, who will make their first Premiership visit to Stamford Bridge this afternoon. Newcastle's Ruud Gullit will also get some idea of the mettle of his men as they attempt to bounce back from defeat last time out against Arsenal. Their aim will be to regain the form that saw them beat the bottom three sides in their three previous outings.

Collins' challenge, page 30

Football, pages 28-31