W2W4: Will Virgil van Dijk be the difference in Merseyside derby?
As the FA Cup gets going again, W2W4 highlights the biggest storylines in the upcoming games...
A debut for Virgil van Dijk?
Liverpool have won their last three matches in the Premier League and are unbeaten in 16 in all competitions, but it might have been the Merseyside Derby on Dec. 10 that finally persuaded the Anfield hierarchy to stump up £75 million to sign Virgil van Dijk.
With only 13 minutes remaining in that encounter, Dejan Lovren clumsily pursued Dominic Calvert-Lewin in the penalty area, placing a hand on the striker's back and giving him the opportunity to collapse on to the turf. Wayne Rooney converted from the spot and the Reds ended the day with a 1-1 draw, 16 points adrift of Premier League leaders Manchester City and only a point ahead of sixth-placed Arsenal. It was a setback that left Jurgen Klopp seething and many pointing the finger of blame, once again, at Lovren.
Having officially completed his transfer on Jan. 1, Van Dijk could be in line to make his debut on Friday night as Everton return to Anfield for what should be a feisty FA Cup tie. The Netherlands defender last featured for Southampton in a 4-1 home defeat to Leicester on Dec. 13, and he will surely hope for a much easier run out than that afternoon.
Sam Allardyce will have his team well-drilled for the occasion, however, after claiming he "mastered" Liverpool in December's draw. Everton are now comfortably above the relegation zone and can afford the distraction of an FA Cup run as Liverpool juggle domestic cup exertions with the race for the top four and a return to Champions League action in February.
With such a packed schedule Van Dijk will need to settle quickly, and perhaps a gruelling evening against the Reds' bitter rivals is the perfect baptism. Possessing an acute sense of danger, aerial prowess, and the ability to play the ball out of defence, it is clear what strengths Van Dijk will bring to his new environment. The question is whether he can cope with increased expectations and the burden of becoming the world's most expensive defender. Friday's game will go a long way to providing an answer.
In-form Derby pose a threat to Man United
A home tie against second-tier opposition initially looked a favourable draw for Manchester United, but Derby County's recent form suggests this could be a tougher battle than first anticipated.
It has been a challenging festive period for Jose Mourinho's side; three successive draws followed by an encouraging performance in a 2-0 victory over Everton. Derby, on the other hand, have won 11 of their last 16 matches to climb to second in the Championship under the shrewd management of Gary Rowett.
Mourinho will be eager to shake up his selection after complaining about a hectic fixture list, and he might hope Rowett does the same. If not, an experienced team featuring former Premier League stalwarts Curtis Davies, Tom Huddlestone, Joe Ledley and David Nugent, among others, could take advantage of any slip-ups.
United will also want to keep an eye on 15-goal forward Matej Vydra and Old Trafford old boy Tom Lawrence, who made a single appearance after graduating from the academy. Lawrence left United for Leicester in 2014 before joining Derby for £7m in the summer. The Wales international has the talent to stretch his boyhood club and the FA Cup loves an underdog story.
Does Pep fancy a quadruple?
Could Manchester City claim a historic quadruple this season?
"That is not going to happen," said Pep Guardiola in December. "Of course not, that is unreal -- what we are living is unreal. That is not going to happen."
Guardiola might have been adamant about City's chances of a four-trophy haul, but he will look at forthcoming cup ties against Burnley, Bristol City and Basel and know that progression is expected. His starting lineup Saturday should reveal whether he is willing to risk his biggest stars in pursuit of the achievement, or whether the FA Cup can be sacrificed in favour of the other three competitions.
The real headache for Guardiola is who to play in attack. With Gabriel Jesus ruled out for around six weeks with a knee injury, Sergio Aguero is the obvious choice to lead the line -- but would it be wise to risk the 29-year-old in what could be a fatiguing outing against stubborn Burnley? They don't really have any other options.
City suddenly look light in the centre-forward department, and the outcome of Saturday's game might further influence their transfer plans as they seek to assemble a squad that can challenge on four fronts.
Vardy's return to Fleetwood
The Jamie Vardy story didn't begin at Fleetwood, but his single season with the Cod Army was an important chapter in his rise. The striker's 31 goals in the Conference in 2011-12 prompted Leicester to pay £1m for his services -- a record fee for a non-League player -- as Vardy climbed three divisions overnight. It has been a remarkable tale of success for the 30-year-old ever since, helping lead Leicester to promotion, survival in the Premier League, and then the most unlikely title triumph in 2016.
It has gone pretty well for Fleetwood, too. After Vardy's goals helped them into the Football League for the first time, they jumped into League One in 2014 and qualified for the playoffs last season. This term has seen Uwe Rosler's side slide back into mid-table, but they have the quality to pose problems for Leicester on an afternoon of reflection for Vardy.
After missing the Huddersfield victory on New Year's Day, he will hope to recover from a groin injury in time to make an appearance against his former club.
Can Luton cause an upset?
Newcastle are strong favourites against Luton Town at St James' Park, but it would be foolish to underestimate Nathan Jones' side. The Hatters command a comfortable lead in the League Two promotion race and have been in free-scoring form this season, hitting eight goals against Yeovil and seven against Stevenage and Cambridge.
Manchester City are the only team in the top four divisions to manage more goals than Luton's total of 62, and Newcastle must be prepared for a battle against experienced strikers Danny Hylton and James Collins.
Former Magpies midfielder Rob Lee also has an interest in this match. His two sons, Olly and Elliot, both play for Luton, with Olly scoring an incredible strike from his own half in the rout of Cambridge. There is plenty of talent in this attacking Luton team, and they will relish the chance to test themselves against Premier League opposition. Newcastle beware.
Matthew Stanger covers European football for ESPN and is the editor of The Set Pieces. Twitter: @MatthewStanger