Manchester United entertain Everton at Old Trafford in a repeat of the fixture that effectively lost them the Premiership crown last season. Cruising at 4-2, United let Everton back into the game and succumbed to a sensational 4-4 draw, handing impetus to City in the title race. This time around, things are a little bit different.
Fergie’s men are unbeaten in 13 matches, including winning four of the last five in the league, and sit a full nine points clear at the summit of the Premier League. They’ve been in ominous post-Christmas form with 12 goals scored, only three against, and just the two points dropped against a resolute Tottenham Hotspur side. In contrast, Everton have had a patchy period by their standards and recently relinquished fourth place to Spurs. David Moyes side will typically be looking to make it extremely difficult for United to play, and will be hoping to cause another upset; the Toffees already won the Goodison Park encounter on the opening weekend of the season.
Their last two Premier League games have seen them come up against ‘weaker’ opposition in the forms of Southampton and Fulham and Ferguson has rotated his squad accordingly: Kagawa has continued his return to match-fitness; Anderson has accrued some much-needed game time in his ongoing mission to prove to everyone he’s not s**t (it’s not working); while Nani has come back from the wilderness to intermittently dazzle on the wings. Midfield reshuffles have seen Carrick, Cleverley and Jones take to the centre of the park, while Vidic has partnered Ferdinand and Smalling at the back. Still, with Everton still formidable opponents despite their recent lag in form, the United starting XI should be back to full clout in time for Sunday’s kick-off.
With much of the attention focused on Robin van Persie’s goal-scoring exploits in a United shirt, the previously centre-stage Rooney has slipped under the radar, but a couple of niggling injuries and lack of form seem to have dissipated in the wake of his much-improved recent performances. With five goals in his last six games across all competitions Rooney seems to be under the spell of his own ‘Manchester United’ syndrome, having suffered a lacklustre start, but apparently getting into full swing post-Christmas.
However, with the spectre of Real Madrid in the Champions League and the return of golden boy Cristiano Ronaldo on Wednesday, you could forgive a weaker-willed manager to warily drop a few players for the Everton clash. However, with the rotation policy over the last few weeks – Premier League and FA Cup ties – Ferguson has ensured his squad is fit and largely free of injuries, and thus more than capable of managing the dual tasks of defeating Everton, then the visiting Spanish champions. Even with a nine-point lead over second-placed Manchester City, United cannot afford to be dropping points because of carelessness. Their cross-city rivals demonstrated just how capable they were of pulling off the unlikely last season as they pipped their neighbours to the title on goal difference.
Following the Everton and Madrid fixtures, Fergie’s men will be looking to pick up maximum points from a schedule that sees them face Reading, QPR and Norwich before the second leg at the Bernabeu. If there is any place to be resting key players for a titanic European battle it is then, not now. It will be unlikely to see the likes of Anderson, Welbeck and Giggs take to the field in a starting berth against Everton, rather Ferguson will hope to out-battle a tough Everton midfield to take control of the game. Michael Carrick, this season’s ‘Mr Dependable’ will have to work hard if he is to overcome the industry of Everton’s midfield and get a handle on the match. Likely to be lined-up with Tom Cleverley, the English pairing will have to toil to get the ball out wide to the likes of Valencia, or forward into areas where Rooney and Van Persie can link up to cause damage.
Meanwhile, at the back, Vidic will want to atone for his display against Everton in the opening fixture where his lack of fitness and sharpness allowed Fellaini to steal a yard on him and power a header past De Gea for the only goal of the game. Similarly, Ferdinand, who is likely to partner the Serb, will have to be aware of the power of Everton’s Nigerian forward, Victor Anichebe. He’s had a mixed time in an Everton shirt but his hard work and persistence has seen him claim the striking berth ahead of a goal-shy Nikica Jelavic in recent weeks, and he’s repaid it with a goal and some decent performances.
Fellaini will need to be stopped if United want to nullify Everton’s greatest threat, and though far from a one-man team; the Goodison outfit do rely on the Belgian’s myriad of abilities. He will drop deep to add his muscle to the midfield battles, while also roving forward to provide a mighty target to hit from the flanks. Vidic will have to be at the top of his game if he’s to halt the afro-haired leviathan from adding to his already enviable tally of goals this season.
Still, despite a reputation as a solid, well-drilled team that are extremely difficult to breakdown, Everton aren’t without their guile and wit: Pienaar and Mirallas inject pace and trickery down the flanks, while Osman is a more than incisive creator in the centre of the pitch. It’s no surprise David Moyes has come away from his last two meetings with Ferguson with four points from a possible six, and even United fans will be wary of the damage Everton could do to their lead at the top of the table.
However, if Carrick and Cleverley can take a hold of proceedings and provide Rooney and Van Persie with service, the latter two have enough ability to cause Real Madrid serious problems, let alone Everton. United have shored up their defensive frailties of late, and Everton have always been strong at the back, so it may just take a moment of magic from either side’s instigators of brilliance to clinch the tie. Forget Madrid for now, Manchester United have to put in a real shift if they’re to retain their nine-point gap in “The Best League in the World”.