Three days ahead of Manchester United’s trip to face Real Madrid in Spain, supporters might be forgiven for having one eye on the Champions League Round of 16 clash next Wednesday. After all, this is a match between two of Europe’s most storied institutions, and a first meeting in almost a decade. Sir Alex Ferguson, José Mourinho; Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney – a selection of the world’s finest managerial and playing talent that is certain to capture global attention.
United’s players, however, can ill afford to look beyond Sunday. Not least with United fighting to regain the Premier League title from neighbours Manchester City, whose defeat to Southampton on Saturday proffers the Reds an opportunity to open up a 12 point lead.
Yet, with Everton at Old Trafford this weekend, and memories of last season’s capitulation against the Merseysiders still fresh, it is far from clear which is the biggest game of the week ahead.
United’s 4-4 draw with Everton on 22 April last season, after holding a two-goal lead with just seven minutes to spare, eventually contributed heavily to a Premier League title secured by Roberto Mancini’s City. Together with Everton’s 1-0 victory over United at Goodison Park on the opening day of the season, there is plenty of reason for concern at Old Trafford over the fixture.
Still, the expediency of two difficult matches inside a few days means that Ferguson is likely to stretch his playing resources against Everton on Sunday, with the United manager insisting that he will trust his full squad over the brace of matches. Given the demands of the European élite, it may the be the tie with Everton where Ferguson delves deepest into his squad.
“It will be different teams,” admitted the United manager on Friday.
“The team on Sunday will not be the same as the team that plays on Wednesday. I trust the squad of players I have. They are all internationals, they are all good players and there is no reason why I can’t play them. They’re all contributing in their own way and that gives us a better chance of dealing with the various competitions we’re in.
“The team is playing well, I’m pleased with their form and I’m pleased that the players we’re changing around, when I’m making different team selections, are buying into it well.”
Ferguson at least has a fully fit squad from which to pick, with only shingles-suffering Phil Jones out of contention, while Ashley Young should return to the match-day party following injury.
Javier Hernández returned late from international duty with Mexico, but there are few other fitness concerns ahead of Everton’s arrival in Manchester. Paul Scholes may only feature against Madrid with the veteran suffering from a minor knee complaint.
“So far everyone has come back fit from their excursions into the rest of the world,” said Sir Alex.
“The only one we’re waiting on is Chicharito. I’ve not had anything back that says he’s not fit so I expect everyone to be fit from their games.
“On our own front, Ashley Young is fit again, Michael Carrick should be okay and Phil Jones will hopefully be okay, irrespective of Stuart Pearce coming out and declaring he had shingles – which we thought was doctor confidence. We’re disappointed in that, but it’s not anything serious for the boy. It’s a mild condition that has surfaced but he should be okay.”
Ferguson faces a number of tough selection choices, particularly in central defence and midfield, where the balance is likely to determine success or failure over two pivotal matches. The Scot may well play just one of Nemanja Vidić and Rio Ferdinand in each of the ties, with the more sprightly Jonny Evans in outstanding form recently.
Meanwhile, Chris Smalling could feature against Everton to counter the Merseysiders aerial threat which proved so effective at Goodison Park, even if star midfielder Marouane Fellaini is struggling with a hip injury that caused the international to miss Belgium’s fixture in midweek.
Yet, it is to last season’s dramatic title-losing draw with the Toffees that many minds will turn – a significant and traumatic day in United’s recent history.
“We were 4-2 up with seven or eight minutes to go,” recalled Ferguson
“It was unexpected and we have to anticipate the unexpected in the run-in. That was a bad blow for us and it cost us the league. Everton are very experienced and, if you look at their record, they’ve only lost three games this season. They’re obviously hard to beat.”
Meanwhile, Everton will leave a decision over Fellaini until the last moment, while Phil Jagielka looks set to play in defence after recovering from a knock. Tony Hibbert and Seamus Coleman miss out again with injury.
David Moyes side arrives having secured a hard-fought draw with Aston Villa last weekend amid a run of seven games without defeat. Indeed, Moyes outfit has lost just once in the past 15 matches. Evidence enough of the challenge facing United this weekend.
When Everton scored twice so late at Old Trafford last season Moyes’ side because just the third side during the Premier League era to avoid defeat to United having been two goals adrift – a measure both of United’s failure on the day, and Everton’s late brilliance.
“You have to try to have a go at Manchester United,” said Moyes on Friday. “I don’t think you can sit back and allow them to dictate the game.
“At times they will be in possession and will get control of the match, and at those times you have to try and see it out. But whenever we can, we will try to make it as awkward as we can for them.”
Yet, Everton hasn’t beaten Ferguson’s side at Old Trafford since August 1992 – the season in which the Scot captured his first league title as United manager.
In fact history augers well for United despite two poor results against Everton in succession – the Reds have won 15 of the past 20 Premier League home games against Everton, with four matches drawn.
Fans will take an extension of that fine record in a match that is far more than a warm-up for a bigger event ahead, even if it takes on a different context with Real to come next week.
Manchester United v Everton – Premier League, Old Trafford – 4pm, 10 February 2013
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Smalling, Vidić, Evans, Evra; Nani, Cleverley, Carrick, Giggs; Welbeck, Rooney. Subs from: Lindegaard, Rafael, Ferdinand, Büttner, Scholes, Anderson, Valencia, Kagawa, van Persie, Hernández.
Everton (4-5-1): Howard; Heitinga, Jagielka, Distin, Baines; Mirallas, Gibson, Neville, Pienaar; Fellaini; Jelavic. Subs from: Mucha, Duffy, Osman, Oviedo, Hitzlsperger, Naismith, Anichebe.
Referee: Mark Halsey
Assistants: R Ganfield, A Garratt
Fourth official: A Marriner
Head to Head
Last 10: United 4, Everton 2, Draw 4
Overall: United 80, Everton 63, Draw 42
- Wayne Rooney’s recent scoring patch is underlined by some solid statistics, including a shot accuracy rate of 69.9 per cent from 56 attempts this season;
- Meanwhile, strike partner Robin van Persie has registering a goal or assist once every 80.8 minutes this season, according to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
- Michael Carrick has performed well in both defence and attack this season, leading the squad for passes completed in the opponent’s half with 755 while making 50 interceptions;
- Tom Cleverley’s all-round game has improved this season – the midfielder boasts the best tackle success rate in the United squad with 74.2 per cent from 31 attempts;
- Marouane Fellaini’s two goals versus Aston Villa last weekend secured Everton a 3-3 draw, but the midfielder has also attempted 80 tackles this season;
- Leighton Baines ranks second in the Index for crosses provided with 99;
- Midfielder Steven Pienaar has completed 701 passes in the opponent’s half this season, more than any other Everton player;
- Phil Jagielka’s tackle success rate of 87.7 per cent from 57 challenges is the best of any central defender in the Premier League.