Three former Reds will grace Old Trafford on Sunday, with Manchester United desperate to send them home disappointed. Phil Neville, Tim Howard and Darron Gibson should all start at their former home, but with United chasing an eight point Premier League lead Sir Alex Ferguson’s men are unlikely to be in charitable mood. United play first this weekend, with victory ensuring at least a five point gap to Manchester City by the time Ferguson’s team visits Eastlands on Monday week. It’s a scenario that would allow the Reds to claim the Premier League title at City’s home.
First though United faces and Everton side in good form, but smarting from having lost an FA Cup semi-final to crosstown rivals Liverpool last weekend. With it concluded the Toffees’ season. Yet, with Everton having won four times in the past six matches there’s little doubt David Moyes team can provide a significant dent to United’s hopes this season.
It means that Ferguson is unlikely to make significant changes to the side that beat Aston Villa so comfortably last weekend. Whatever the selection the 70-year old United manager says that his team’s experience should win through with just four games remaining in the Premier League season.
“There’s good performers out on that field and they are playing with great determination, which you need to do at this time of the season,” said the United manager on Friday.
“And they’ve got great experience of handling big game situations which we are going to face in the next few weeks. So I trust them, I let them get on with it. I think it’s the right time to do that. They are a good bunch of lads, they want to win the league. Hopefully we can achieve what we want to do.”
Positive news, then, that Ferguson reports no fresh injuries for the 12.30pm Sunday clash, with only long-term absentees Anderson, Darren Fletcher and Nemanja Vidić absent from the first team squad. Nani could come into the side for the heavily criticised Ashley Young, with the former Villain having picked up a minor knock against his old club, although the winger will be fit to play some part.
Meanwhile, Michael Owen could make the bench, although teenage contract rebel Paul Pogba is unlikely to play again this season after picking up a hamstring strain in a midweek reserve match.
“Anderson is not going to play again this season and Paul [Pogba] got injured in Monday and he is out for the season,” Ferguson added.
“I have said time and time again that Michael [Owen] is a player who can score important goals if you are struggling in a match. He has had a hard time with injuries. When he gets them it is usually months. If there is a players that can score an important goal at any stage of a match it is Michael. We welcome him back.”
Cynics might add that after a career beset by injuries Ferguson can hold no surprise with Owen’s latest setback. The former Liverpool striker has started just 18 games for United over the past three seasons, and none since picking up a thigh strain in the Champions League last November.
Meanwhile, a player who has benefited from a largely injury-free season – Rio Ferdinand – should make his 450th career league start on Sunday. Ferdinand is approaching 400 games in all competitions for United after nearly a decade with the club.
But is it to former Evertonian Wayne Rooney that United will look to secure the points on Sunday. Rooney, once a blue, now a Red approaching another Old Trafford milestone – the 26-year-old needs just one goal to equal the total scored by club legends George Best and Dennis Viollet of 179.
“It’s fantastic. It will happen of course, hopefully it happens Sunday,” said Ferguson on Rooney’s record. “But it will eventually happen and it’s a marvellous achievement.”
Rooney, who has scored 31 goals in all competitions this season, could well go on to beat Bobby Charlton’s United record of 249 too. “He has every chance of beating that – I am sure he will do it,” adds the United manager.
Yet, Rooney has just two goals in 12 games against his former club, with many believing the Liverpudlian simply tries too hard against Everton – a pressure that adversely affects Rooney’s game. This is the time of season when pressure either becomes an incentive or a burden. Across town City appeared to crumble on it, before cracking in 10 goals in the past two matches. Meanwhile, United has suffered just the single league defeat in the past 14 matches.
“We put pressure on ourselves to win games; the pressure comes from within and from the fans,” says defender Ferdinand.
“They demand that and so does the boss. We have to go out there and produce our own result first – outside pressure doesn’t come into it. We want to win every game until the end of the season. That has not changed and it won’t change until the last day of the season.”
The visitors, meanwhile, will be missing defender Leighton Baines who sustained a hamstring injury in last weekend’s FA Cup semi-final defeat by Liverpool. Jack Rodwell is still out, but Steven Pienaar is available, having been cup-tied last weekend. Old Trafford supporters will be also able to welcome the trio of former Reds ‘home’, with Gibson, Neville and Howard all fit to play.
“It is nice to know you’re in with a more-than-likely chance of playing every week, rather than not,” adds Gibson, who joined Everton for around £2 million in January.
“I am just enjoying it [at Everton] and I’m in a better mood now, I know that. It’s surprised me how well it’s gone because I wasn’t sure. This was the first club I have moved to — I was at United since I was 15. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I’m really enjoying my football. It is a great club.”
Few United fans will begrudge Gibson a successful spell at Everton, although he will ingratiate only the visiting supporters by scoring on Sunday. History is against Everton though – the Merseyside club has not beaten United in Manchester for nearly 20 years, losing 15 and drawing just three in the past 18 fixtures.
Meanwhile, United remains in a purple patch of form despite the loss to Wigan Atheltic a fortnight ago. Indeed, the Reds’ tally of 82 points after 34 games is the best in any Premier League season by Ferguson’s team. United has also scored in a record 47 consecutive home matches since a 1-0 defeat by Aston Villa in 2009.
Few would have predicted that record at the start of the campaign.
Manchester United versus Everton, Premier League, Old Trafford, 21 April 2012, 12.30pm.
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Scholes, Nani; Rooney; Welbeck. Subs from: Amos, Jones, Fabio, Smalling, Jones, Young, Cleverley, Giggs, Hernández, Berbatov.
Everton (4-5-1): Howard; Neville, Heitinga, Distin, Hibbert; Osman, Gibson, Cahill, Fellaini, Pienaar; Jelavic. Subs from: Hahnemann, Jagielka, Gueye, Drenthe, Stracqualursi, McFadden, Barkley, Coleman, Vellios, Anichebe.
- United ensured City remains five points behind in the title race with a comprehensive 4-0 win over Aston Villa last weekend – Rooney’s 23rd and 24th Premier League goals of the season, and strikes from Welbeck and Nani gave United the vital win;
- Rooney has taken 124 shots at goal in the Premier League this season with 66 per cent on target, and 19 per cent of his efforts resulting in goals;
- Welbeck has eight goals from 69 attempts, with an impressive 72 per cent on target, although his conversion rate for goals is just 12 per cent;
- Nani has been both scorer and provider for United this season, scoring seven goals and adding ten assists – the winger has also put in more crosses than any other player in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index with 120 so far;
- Everton suffered FA Cup heartbreak at the weekend, but Moyes will be seeking a return to the league form that saw the Toffees win 4-0 against Sunderland a fortnight ago;
- Everton had four different goal scorers that day in Magaye Gueye, Victor Anichebe, Steveb Pienaar and Leon Osman;
- Anichebe has five Premier League goals this season, despite playing just 463 minutes of football – it’s the fifth best minutes-per-goal ratio in the Index, with a goal every 92 minutes 40 seconds. The only players with a better minutes-per-goal rate this season are Thierry Henry, Papiss Cisse, Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez;
- Steven Pienaar has been a revitalising force for Everton since returning, covering 35.26 miles for the Toffees, at an average of 5.87 miles per game, and completing 265 passes in his opponent’s half, one every three minutes and 14 seconds;
- Osman has made more shots on target than any other Everton player this season with 27 on target – 63 per cent of all shots he has attempted;
Referee: Mike Jones (Chester)
Assistants: A Garratt, A Halliday
Fourth Official: K Friend