Over the years Manchester United has entered spring chasing a league title, a domestic cup or European glory. Days out to Wembley were common, as was the tension as the Reds sought to tie up yet another title. Spring has not been so kind in recent years, though, with United having little to shout about since the spring of 2013 when the Reds wrapped up a record-breaking 20th league title on a late April night. Yet, on Saturday, United’s supporters will find themselves walking down Wembley Way once again, with the hope of FA Cup glory firmly on the mind.
For once, the international break was a welcome distraction, and not just an unnecessary fixture in the calendar. Manchester United supporters enjoyed work, head held high, knowing the team couldn’t let them down – and with a glow of recent victory over Manchester City still fresh. All good things must come to an end though and the Premier League returns with United welcoming Everton to Old Trafford, chasing fourth, and with it a Champions League spot.
So poor is Wayne Rooney in matches against former club Everton that is tempting to suggest Manchester United is effectively rendered one man short. The Scouser has scored just four times in 18 games against the Toffees and not at Goodison Park since 2007. Indeed, Rooney has suffered plenty of indignity at his former ground, once being substituted by Sir Alex Ferguson in 2008 for fear of an imminent red card, and left out of the matchday squad altogether on another occasion.
Yet Rooney’s form is also in such poor form this season that some fans have come to view the striker’s demotion to the bench as necessary, if not yet inevitable given the captain’s special privileges under manager Louis van Gaal. Rooney has scored five times since August, although three came against Belgian side Club Brugge and another versus Ipswich Town in the Capital One Cup. Just once has Rooney found the net in the Premier League this season. There have been far more inept displays from the striker, including a fortnight ago at Arsenal.
Rooney missed two England games during the international break, and the player’s lack of “match rhythm” met yet give Van Gaal cause to drop his captain with a political safety net in place. Not that the Dutchman appears to hold any less faith in the 29-year-old despite a series of woeful performances this season. Indeed, Van Gaal gave short shrift to media questions about Rooney’s form during his regular Friday press conference.
“His average is not so good [against Everton] so it’s getting time that he changed that pattern. I’m a manager who analyses opponents and gives him advice as to how we can disorganise Everton’s defence and then maybe he can score,” said Van Gaal on Friday.
“For me it is not so important who is scoring. We have scored a lot of goals. In the beginning your criticism was we don’t score goals but now we’ve scored a lot of goals and you’re picking up an individual player and I don’t like that. He’s our captain so that’s very important because his influence is bigger than every other player in our group.”
United began the season struggling to create and convert chances, although Anthony Martial’s introduction has proven to be a catalyst for more effective attacking performances in recent weeks. The youngster has scored four in seven games for his new club, although his performances have merited greater praise still. United scored twice against Wolfsburg in the Champions League, three at home to Sunderland, another three against Ipswich, three at Southampton and three at home to Liverpool. All since Martial joined in early September.
“Have we created enough chances?” Van Gaal asked. “Yes, I think so. I think we have chances to score in every game. Also against Arsenal, after the first 20 minutes we have created a lot of chances. It’s not a given in every team that you can create a lot of chances at 3-0 down and we did it, so that’s the positive thing. But of course it’s very important that out of your chances you score and against Arsenal we didn’t.”
That defeat at Arsenal has prompted something of an internal debate at the club, with United starting the game slowly and – despite the manager’s claim – rarely threatening to get back into the match, albeit the Reds put in a more positive performance in the second period. United’s midfield axis of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Michael Carrick struggled at the Emirates – though much was down to Van Gaal’s odd tactical demands. The German was pushed high up the pitch, too often leaving Carrick to contend with three mobile Arsenal midfielders.
United suffered a similarly cataclysmic defeat at Everton last April, with Rooney particularly ineffective – an seemingly uninterested – as United slipped to a 3-0 defeat on Merseyside. It is a result Van Gaal will want to avenge, especially in light of United’s performance in North London a fortnight ago.
“We are always evaluating ourselves and we cannot accept that,” van Gaal told reporters of United’s performance at Arsenal. “You have to behave like a champion. You have to improve yourself so that in the future you can be the champion. You have to improve every time, which is what I am saying. I have analysed over the two weeks and that is awful when you have such a result. We have spoken about this and that it can’t happen again. ”
Meanwhile, Everton manager Roberto Martinez described last season’s result at Goodison as “comfortable in everything we wanted to do.” It is a damning assessment of United’s ineptitude that day.
Everton’s results are on the up after a difficult start to the campaign, with the Spaniard’s team now unbeaten in seven games – a sequence that includes victory over Chelsea at Goodison and a draw in the Merseyside derby last time out.
Martinez’ side was probably unfortunate not to secure victory in Brendan Rodgers’ last game as Liverpool manager. Still, the Spaniard is counting on a raucous Goodison crowd to earn the home side victory on Saturday. Recent history is with the Toffees – Everton has beaten United on the last three occasions at Goodison. A fourth is unthinkable for Van Gaal and his captain.
“Goodison probably gets at its very best [against United], and when Goodison pushes you with that energy and that voice, as a player you feel the difference, and as a team you feel you can cope with anything that you get in front of you.”
Team news and line-ups
Van Gaal is likely to select Rooney at number 10, with the striker recovered from a minor injury that kept him out of two international games in the past week. Carrick and Schweinsteiger are also fit, as is Phil Jones, who played for England in midweek. The Dutchman could pair Jones with Chris Smalling in central defence, with Daley Blind moving to left-back and Matteo Darmian starting on the right. Although the combination of that quartet could also see three players start outside their normal roles. Stand-in full-back Ashley Young is unfit with a thigh problem and Marcos Rojo not yet fully fit.
“Wayne Rooney, I think he can play and Michael Carrick can play as well,” said van Gaal. “I was very pleased with Jones. He has played for me two times for 15 or 20 minutes. Then he plays for the England team. When I want to select him I can select him for the line-up.”
Meanwhile, Paddy McNair suffered a ruptured kidney as Northern Ireland qualified for Euro 2016 and will miss United’s trip to Everton. Rojo and Ander Herrera trained in Manchester during the international break and should be part of the match-day squad, although neither is likely to start.
“They were injured and they have a rehabilitation period behind their back and everything went well,” Van aal told MUTV. “They are also fit to play – maybe not 90 minutes but you never know.”
John Stones and Seamus Coleman should return for the home side, while former Red Tom Cleverley is also fit. Steven Pienaar and Kevin Mirallas are available after suspension.
Everton subs from: Joel, Browning, Funes Mori, Holgate, Oviedo, Gibson, Lennon, McGeady, Mirallas, Osman, Kone
United subs from: Romero, Rojo, Pereira, Fellaini, Schweinsteiger, Herrera, Lingard, Valencia, Wilson
Referee: Jonathan Moss
Assistants: A Halliday, D Cann
Fourth Official: R Madley
Everton 1-1 United
£1 bet club
Wayne Rooney to be sent off at 25/1
Match graphic by @cole007
He is, said one prominent journalist around this time last year, a “strange player.” Possessing neither the technical skill that is typical of an attacking player at a top club, nor the defensive instincts required to lock down a place in David Moyes’ central midfield, Marouane Fellaini has, somehow, become a central figure at Manchester United this season. Indeed, the Belgian returns to Everton this weekend as the central narrative in this weekend’s action and a key player in United’s recent revival.
Fellaini’s impact has been significant – particularly over the last eight matches – although it is one found not in the data. After all, the Belgian neither scores goals, creates them, nor boasts a pass completion rate among the best in United’s squad. Yet, the Belgian has struck up a strong relationship with Ashley Young and Daley Blind on United’s left-flank – one part of the “balance” manager Louis van Gaal has been seeking all season. He has become a plan B atypical to the plethora of technical players in United’s squad.
Despite Fellaini’s improvement there is also the view that the Belgian is highly unlikely to be such a key figure a year from now. After all, Van Gaal’s pragmatic approach to locking down a place in the Champions League has enabled Fellaini to overcome a difficult first year at the club; the Dutchman’s challenge is now to win trophies at domestic and European level. It is goal to which many believe Fellaini ill-suited.
Still, with this weekend’s opponent’s Everton is strong form after a difficult campaign it is set to be a game that tests United’s resolve after defeat at Chelsea. The Belgian remains central to United’s cause as the Reds visit Fellaini’s old stomping ground.
“I asked him today and he said ‘it’s a game’, but I think he doesn’t want to admit it,” van Gaal told MUTV of Fellaini’s return to Merseyside. “He is very dry in his answers but I believe it shall be a special game. I hope that the fans receive him like the Chelsea fans received Juan Mata, because I like that very much.”
“Every player who is playing for Manchester United has qualities. I believe Marouane Fellaini has qualities and we want the qualities of Fellaini to dominate in a team. I believe that we are doing that and that’s why his performances are better now.”
Meanwhile, the hosts have found some form in recent weeks, with victories over Burnley, Southampton, Queens Park Rangers and Newcastle United. It is a run that has lifted the Toffees into mid table and away from a potential relegation battle. One that has been achieved in Roberto Martínez’ characteristic pass-and-move style – a philosophy Van Gaal seemingly admires.
“Everton are playing much better and I think that’s because of the manager having a philosophy,” added van Gaal. “When the players believe in that, they can improve. I am always communicating with my players about philosophy, about performance, about attitude, about behaviour.
“That is very important. He sticks to the same philosophy and I believe his players are believing in him and also that philosophy. At the end, you can see it.”
On the pitch Van Gaal is likely to be without Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and Michael Carrick for the short trip east, although Daley Blind could return. The Dutchman enjoyed a productive spell at left-back in recent weeks, but may be drafted into midfield at Goodison, with Wayne Rooney returning to a striking role. Indeed, with Radamel Falcao suffering another difficult game at Stamford Bridge, the Colombian could find a place on the bench awaits. It has been the on-loan striker’s role for much of a campaign that has yielded just four goals.
Jonny Evans is available after suspension and could come in to the side, although Paddy McNair excelled at Stamford Bridge last week. Meanwhile, Rafael da Silva, who has been out of the team for months anyway, may have played his last game for the club after suffering a broken rib with the under-21s this week. The Brazilian is expected to move on this summer after seven years with the club.
“For you, I shall say it is Daley Blind, but there is a question mark,” said the Dutchman when asked about his players’ availability this weekend. “Rafael, it is unbelievable. He has broken his ribs so he shall not play anymore this season for Manchester United very unfortunately. Januzaj is not such a heavy injury.”
Meanwhile, Martínez is without Steven Pienaar, who is struggling with a muscle problem, although Leon Osman and James McCarthy are fit to play. Everton’s decent form in recent weeks has come after a period in which the Merseysiders flirted with the relegation zone after achieving European qualification last season. Martinez’ side is unbeaten at home in all competitions in 2015 and the team has won its last three Premier League matches at Goodison Park without conceding.
Martínez suffered predictable criticism for Everton’s poor form through the autumn and winter – and finds much simpatico with his opposite number’s challenges.
“It wasn’t easy to find the right formula at Manchester United after Sir Alex Ferguson retired,” Martínez said. “I think what has been really interesting is how long it took to find the right formula but how competitive the team was all through that period.
“When we faced them at Old Trafford in October, if someone had said they would be favourites to finish above the champions, Manchester City, this season, I don’t think you would have believed it. That shows you the incredible turnaround. I do think United will finish strong this season and they are capable of challenging for everything next season.”
Still, Goodison Park has not always been a happy place for United in recent years – the Toffees are looking for a third consecutive home win over Manchester United. This time last season a ‘Grim Reaper’ was ejected from Goodison Park as United slipped to yet another defeat – a publicity stunt, albeit one that said much in Moyes’ last game at the club.
One year on and there has been genuine progress, with plenty of credit due to an unlikely source. Fellaini will surely enjoy his moment on Sunday.
Everton (4-2-3-1): Howard; Coleman, Stones, Jagielka, Baines; Lennon, Barry, McCarthy, Barkley, Miralla; Lukaku
United (4-1-4-1): De Gea; Valencia, Smalling, McNair, Shaw; Blind; Mata, Herrera, Fellaini, Young; Rooney
Everton: Robles, McGeady, Distin, Garbutt, Besic, Atsu, Alcaraz, Koné, Osman, Naismith
United: Valdes, Rafael, Blackett, Evans, Januzaj, Lingard, Perreira, Wilson, Di Maria, Falcao, Van Persie
Everton 65 – Draw 42 – United 82
Referee: Andre Marriner
Assistants: S Ledger, D Bryan
Fourth Official: R Madley
Everton 0-2 United
£1 bet club
United to win 2-0 @ 10/1
Running total: £9.50 up!
At some point later this season, with Manchester United comfortably qualified for the Champions League, and Louis van Gaal’s name ringing around Old Trafford, the late summer will seem like a distant memory. Not a good one for United’s medical team, but one long forgotten nonetheless. Such is the enduring list of absentees that engulfs Van Gaal’s squad these days.
There is little to lighten the mood at Old Trafford as Everton visit on Sunday – especially with much change in the backroom where Tony Strudwick has effectively been demoted in favour of Dutch fitness coach Jos van Dijk, while United has sought to also limit physio Rod Thornley’s involvement with the England set-up. Whatever the cause of the an extended injury crisis Van Gaal is not prepared to stand still.
Without eight injured players on Sunday, Van Gaal must also adjust for Wayne Rooney’s absence, with the club captain sitting out the next three matches after taking a crude hack at Stuart Downing last the weekend. The Scouser has apparently apologised to his team-mates for the error which provoked a first Premier League red in five years, although as ever with Rooney, the fans didn’t feature in the behind closed doors mea culpa.
On the pitch United’s manager is likely to bring Juan Mata back into the fold after the Spaniard was dropped last weekend, while youngster Patrick McNair keeps his place. There is little choice with three central defenders still injured and the Dutchman reluctant to field two left-footed players – Marcos Rojo and Tyler Blackett – in the heart of United’s back-four.
McNair’s selection is, of course, also a vote in confidence after the Irishman’s positive debut against West Ham United – one that leads to the Dutchman fielding another youthful defensive line against Everton this weekend.
“We still have three central defenders injured so [McNair] shall play,” said Van Gaal on Friday. “He is the only player who can play in the right-sided defensive position. I chose him last week and he was very good. It’s difficult for a player like him to maintain that level – that is his biggest challenge.
“We have eight injuries and one red card so nine players are not available. It’s difficult to explain. You can be fit but not match fit – that’s a big difference. For example, Ander Herrera is fit but he cannot play because of his rib pressure. Marouane Fellaini has trained for one week but is not fit to play 90 minutes.”
McNair’s retention is Blackett’s loss. The 20-year-old Mancunia featured in five Premier League games this season before suspension against the Hammers – and faces an uncertain immediate future in Van Gaal’s side with Phil Jones and Chris Smalling both nearing fitness.
The Leicester City aberration aside, Blackett has also been United’s most consistent defender this season. In that there is, of course, some irony – that youth products such as Blackett and McNair should feature so heavily in the thinking after the club spent some £150 million on new players during the summer transfer window. It is a chance that both have taken impressively.
“I want to play in every game and I am trying to impress the manager enough to keep my place,” Blackett told the official website.
“Now that I have played a few games, it is one of those situations when you are hungry for more. There is healthy competition among the defenders. We have banter in training and we are all pushing each other to improve. We all want to succeed.”
Elsewhere Van Gaal must find a midfield combination without Ander Herrera, who broke a rib against West Ham. One of Adnan Januzaj and Darren Fletcher is likely to come into the side alongsidevDaley Blind and Angel Di Maria. Fletcher offers United greater defensive presence, although the Scotsman is patently unlikely to ever reach his former level, while Januzaj is yet to start a fixture this season. Much, no doubt, to the Belgian youngster’s frustration.
It is a pattern that points to Fletcher taking up the captaincy on Sunday. Not least with Van Gaal required to protect United’s fragile defence.
“I want my defensive organisation to be better,” said the Dutchman.
“It’s teamwork, so when we concede a goal it’s not only because of an individual error from the defence. It starts somewhere else and that is what we have to analyse and improve.
“We have a lot of creative attacking players in our selection and I like that but I also like to think that you have the discipline to come back in a certain shape because now we have conceded too many goals.”
Meanwhile, Roberto Martinez’ side arrives having suffered an equally difficult opening six games of the season, although manager the Spaniard will point to mitigating circumstances. Everton has certainly played better than a record of one win in six Premier League games suggests.
Martinez’ strategy at Old Trafford is helped little by Everton’s Europa League campaign, with the Merseysiders returning from a fixture against FK Krasnodar in the small hours of Friday morning. It cannot but have a debilitating effect despite the Spaniard’s upbeat demeanour.
“The kick-off time is a bit of a disappointment because every hour you can get is a bonus, but we don’t see that as an excuse or reason to moan,” said Martinez.
“We just have to have the right mentality in every game we go into. I don’t see it as a problem at all. We’re fully focused on facing Manchester United, a team we respect massively as a really good attacking force. In my eyes, they are going to do big things this season.”
Meanwhile, Everton forward Kevin Mirallas suffered a hamstring tear and is out for a month, while Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy are unlikely to feature. McCarthy has a muscle strain, suffered in the draw with Liverpool last weekend, while Coleman has recovered from concussion, but has a soft tissue problem. Steven Pienaar could come back into the side, but Ross Barkley is again missing. Former United midfielder Darron Gibson is likely to be on the bench.
Still, this is an Everton team that completed the double over United last season. The underwhelming start to the new campaign is surely a blip rather than the norm. Indeed, Everton has won three of their last four games against the Reds, including the 1-0 victory over David Moyes’ at Old Trafford last season.
Despite the difficult start Everton is also a club on the up – one revitalised by Martinez where Moyes brought only negativity and rancour to United. It is also an institution seeking a higher platform despite the restrictions on the budget imposed by an ageing Goodison Park. European football is both a blessing and a curse.
Which brings us neatly back to United – where the curse of injury has little blessing this season.
United (4-1-2-1-2): de Gea; Rafael, McNair, Rojo, Shaw; Blind; Fletcher, Di Maria; Mata; Van Persie, Falcao
Everton (4-3-3): Howard; Hibbert, Stones, Jagielka, Baines; Pienaar, Barry, Belsic; Naismith, Lukaku, McGeady
United: Lindegaard, Blackett, Vermijl, Thorpe, Janko, Pereira, Fellaini, Valencia, Anderson, Januzaj
Everton: Robles, Atsu, Alcaraz, Distin, Koné, Oviedo, Garbutt, Osman, Gibson, Long, Hope, McAlney, Browning, Eto’o
United 81- Draw 42 – Everton 65
Referee: Kevin Friend
Assistants: M McDonough, S Burt
Fourth Official: C Pawson
United 1-1 Everton
£1 bet club
Mata to open the scoring @ 7/1
Running total: £(-)7
It is the longest running saga in Manchester United’s history – the 188th time the Reds have faced Everton since the teams first met in 1892. Everton hammered Newton Heath 6-0 at Goodison Park that September to set up an unbeaten run against ‘United’ that would last 15 years. More than a century on and the narrative is very different, of course, but rare are the occasions in the modern era when the Toffees hold the upper hand.
United visit Goodison on Sunday, but this time with the hosts nine points clear and riding the crest of new manager Roberto Martinez’ wave. Chasing a spot in the Champions League, Evertonians now talk of the belief and positivity the Spaniard has brought during his year in charge. That is to say little of the rapid metamorphosis in style Everton has undergone this season.
It is an observation in stark contrast to United, with David Moyes’ side arriving in north Liverpool with little to play for as the season winds down. The Reds’ 14 defeats across four competitions ensures Moyes remains under the kind of pressure Martinez distinctly does not.
This is, after all, not only a narrative about Everton and United, but Martinez and Moyes. United’s new manager suffers ill for the comparison.
Indeed, while Moyes spoke on Friday about the “legacy” he had left at Goodison Park after more than a decade in charge, Martinez was quick to remind just how far United has fallen – and that Moyes’ assertion that Sir Alex Ferguson left him with an ageing squad does not sit well against the backdrop of an 11 point Premier League victory just a year ago.
In truth, while Martinez has taken Moyes’ squad and actively sought to improve, the Scot has instilled an alien aura of negativity at Old Trafford. One that deeply frustrates. This is, after all, the English champion club; one now reduced to competing for sixth place and a spot in next season’s Europa League – Europe’s second tier competition.
“They are still the league champions and they haven’t lost anyone,” said Martinez pointedly on Friday.
“It’s the opposite. They have two players on top. United’s squad is bigger and better than people are trying to make out. Who are these United veterans? Rio Ferdinand? How many games has Rio played? Not many and Ryan Giggs hasn’t played many, either. You could look at Chelsea and say they are more of an ageing squad. In football, not everything is straightforward.
“An ageing squad if you win becomes an experienced squad with knowhow. If you lose, it becomes the players have no legs. It’s something in between those extremes. You look at Chelsea, title contenders, but squad-wise worse than United.”
It is an observation that hurts all the more for its truth. Yet, it is not only results that split the two managers this season, but a fundamental approach to the game. Martinez seeks big goals – and to achieve them in the spirit of adventure that has come to define his career. Moyes, by contrast, is a reactionary; grounding United’s approach in an attempt to mitigate opponents’ strengths.
Practically, this explains Martinez’ belief that Everton could qualify for the Champions League through incremental improvements over the season. And an absolute belief in a style of play that has rarely failed to impress this season even when results have not gone Everton’s way.
“The two managers are totally different, in every way,” left-back Leighton Baines told the Guardian.
“They both have things they are really good at but with the current manager, he’s ultra-positive. He takes the positive from every single scenario. That’s been the big thing for me: the difference in the style of play, committing to that and not feeling like we have to adapt to the opposition.
“The new manager has that confidence and belief in himself, in his own blueprint. And then in us. He tells us we’re not going to change, we’re just going to improve constantly. He spoke about the Champions League from the start.”
Moyes, by contrast, was quick to dismiss the comparison with Martinez. “First of all, the game is not about me, it’s about Everton and Manchester United,” he told the press on Friday. Little wonder, but with United nine points adrift of Everton, and suffering a 37-point swing from last season, it is a comparison that Moyes cannot win either.
Still, United travel to Goodison having revived domestic fortunes over recent weeks. There were four scored against both Newcastle United and Aston Villa, while the Reds have not conceded a Premier League goal away from home since defeat to Stoke City in February.
Everton, meanwhile, suffered home defeat to Crystal Palace in midweek. It was not a fatal blow to the Toffees’ hopes of qualifying for the Champions League, but in the context of a tough run-in, devastating nonetheless.
On the pitch, United take former Evertonians Wayne Rooney and Marouane Fellaini in the matchday squad. However, Robin van Persie remains on the sidelines and may not play again this season. Jonny Evans could make the bench, but Rafael da Silva is definitely out.
Defensive injuries mean that both Chris Smalling and Phil Jones will probably start, while in attack Moyes must decide whether to stick with the trio of Juan Mata, Adnan Januzaj and Shinji Kagawa that so impressed against Newcastle. It seems likely that the latter pair will find a place only on the bench.
Martinez, meanwhile, is unlikely to recall captain Phil Jagielka, who is not yet match fit following injury. However, James McCarthy has recovered from a muscle problem and will start after missing the midweek defeat to Palace.
Alongside, Moyes, Rooney and Fellaini, former Evertonians Phil Neville, Steve Round, Jimmy Lumsden and Chris Woods also return to Goodison. The focus, of course, is on Moyes. After 11 largely successful seasons at Goodison there has been significant revisionism among Everton’s supporters this season. It is perhaps the effect of Moyes’ downbeat approach in contrast to Martinez’ positivity.
There appears little love lost for Moyes at Goodison, who may well receive a mixed response.
“The roles that Marouane Fellaini and Phil Neville and David Moyes have, they are well-known figures at Everton, they’ll always be respected, but they’ll be respected after the final whistle,” said Martinez.
“Now they’re representing Manchester United and that cannot be a nice atmosphere.”
Everton v Manchester United, Premier League, Goodison Park, 4.10pm, 20 April 2014
Everton (4-2-3-1): Howard; Delanney, Stones, Distin, Baines; McCarthey, Barry; Deulofeu, Barkley, Mirallas; Lukaku
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Jones, Vidić, Smalling, Evra; Valencia, Fellaini, Carrick, Welbeck; Mata; Rooney
Everton: Robles, Hibbert, Garbutt, Jagielka, Browning, Alcaraz, Gueye, McGeady, Osman, Naismith
United: Lindegaard, Evans, Büttner, Ferdinand, Cleverley, Fletcher, Kagawa, Nani, Young, Giggs, Januzaj, Hernández
Head to Head
Everton 64 Draw 42 United 81
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Assistants: G Beswick, S Beck
Fourth Official: C Pawson
Join the discussion here!
There is a strange penchant in the modern game to overplay a rendezvous with former employers, although this is, of course, the very situation that David Moyes, his coaching staff, and Marouane Fellaini face on Wednesday night. Yet, it will somehow seem very strange if Moyes doesn’t vigorously celebrate victory, should it come against Everton at Old Trafford. There is respect and then there are three points in a Premier League season that could rapidly fall away from United if the Reds cannot find greater consistency in the weeks to come.
Indeed, while the Reds face Everton in Manchester, leaders Arsenal host Hull City in what could become a pivotal pre-Christmas round of matches. Nine points the gap, six or possibly 12 are the very real scenarios that face Moyes’ outfit ahead of Wednesday’s fixtures. And while no trophies are won in December, the old cliché that they can be lost is not so far from the truth.
Still, Moyes’ side is now unbeaten in 12 and faces six winnable league fixtures before the year is out. It is an opportunity that United must grasp if the Premier League title is to be retained this season.
First, though, Roberto Martinez’ outfit arrives at Old Trafford on a six match unbeaten run and playing some of the best football the club has produced in years. In that there is no little irony ahead of a game that Moyes claims means no more than any other, although after a decade at Everton Moyes will find vocal support in the visitors section.
“I’m not an emotional person and, in truth, I’d rather just get on with the game,” said Moyes on Tuesday.
“I’ve got great respect for Everton, their chairman, their players and their supporters but from my point of view I’m Manchester United manager now.
“I had a great time at Everton. It was a great club for me at the time in my career when I left Preston North End. They were fabulous to me. They gave me a chance to succeed at the club the best I could.
“I’ve got to say Roberto’s gone in and done a really good job and kept it going. All I know is that I’m manager of Manchester United. I’ve got respect for Everton, but from my point of view I’m United manager now and I don’t think they’d expect anything different.”
On the pitch United must recover from an entertaining draw at Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, but one that saw the Reds slip further behind in the title race. While a point gained in the capital comes with plenty of merit, United’s situation in the table now demands a run of victories secured.
After all, it may be 12 unbeaten, but in that run there have been five draws. It is a level of form that if replicated across the league season might bring less than 80 points, and the title surely departing Old Trafford.
Still, at least Sunday’s draw brought no fresh injuries, while Robin van Persie is likely to return against the Toffees. Moyes welcomes back with some relief one of three key players to have missed recent matches, along with Michael Carrick and Nemanja Vidić.
In the Dutchman’s frequent absence this season Wayne Rooney has once again taken on the mantle of United’s talisman. The Scouser has also struck up an exciting if embryonic partnership with playmaker Shinji Kagawa.
That duo is likely to be broken up at Old Trafford, with Moyes also considering changes elsewhere in the team ahead of a hectic December schedule. Newcastle United comes to Old Trafford at the weekend, with a pivotal European fixture against Shakhtar Donetsk to follow.
Elsewhere Nani, Adnan Januzaj, Ryan Giggs and Marouanne Fellini will all hope to be involved against Everton after missing out of United’s game in north London. However, Phil Jones is suspended for one match after picking up five yellow cards this season, meaning at least one change in central midfield.
Meanwhile, Matinez’ side arrives in good form having thrashed Stoke City at Goodison on Saturday. The 4-0 victory was inspired by on-loan Barcelona forward Gerard Deulofeu, while Romelu Lukaku scored his eighth goal of an increasing productive season.
Everton’s run leaves the Toffees fourth in the Premier League table, with a renewed believe that victory at Old Trafford is very obtainable and a negative approach now a thing of the past.
“This week will have a huge bearing on our season,” said Martinez, whose side faces United and then Arsenal this week.
“It would be very easy for me to play it down but we are going to go to Old Trafford and the Emirates. They are games that we are not expected to win but, clearly, if we want to achieve something special, we need to be able to break the mentality of going to the big grounds and getting some wins.
“Over the last 10 years we have not beaten Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool at their grounds and we need to address that. We need to make sure we are ourselves. We need to know how we are going to play and who we are.”
Everton arrives with no new injuries, although Leighton Baines – the subject of three bids from United in the summer – misses out with a broken toe. Bryan Oviedo, who started only his second league game for Everton at the weekend, again plays at left-back.
Martinez is likely to retain the three-man forward line, with Deulofeu and Steven Pienaar flanking Belgian striker Lukaku in a potent attack. Indeed, Deulofeu and Lukaka might well form the most dangerous on-loan forward lines in Europe, albeit in a niche category.
Yet, this is smart business that could still fire Everton in to Europe next season despite the Merseyside club operating with far less income than the ‘big four’ of United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal.
“We need to be realistic. There are six clubs with six incredible budgets and we need to be different in the way we play,” admitted Martinez, who reacted angrily to United’s £28 million bid for Fellaini and Baines in August.
“Unless you experiment with that on the pitch you will never be able to beat teams with bigger budgets. If you are going to be brave and try to win games then you need to be flexible as a player and as a team. That is the attitude we have had from the beginning. We have had one defeat in 13. The next test and the next challenge is can we go to the big places like the Old Trafford, the Emirates, Anfield and Stamford Bridge and get wins?”
It is a scenario that Old Trafford will not countenance; one in which United’s title dreams might lie of the altar of hope. After all, while Arsenal’s form might well tail off after Christmas, it might also take a poor run from Chelsea and City for United to retain the title.
But only if the Reds keep on dropping points, of course.s
Manchester United v Everton, Premier League, Old Trafford, 8pm, 3 December 2013
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Smalling, Evans, Vidić, Evra; Cleverley, Fellaini; Nani, Rooney, Kagawa; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Buttner, Rafael, Ferdinand, Anderson, Young, Valencia, Giggs, Januzaj, Welbeck, Hernández
Everton (4-5-1): Howard; Coleman, Jagielka, Distin, Oviedo; Barry, McCarthy, Osman; Deulofeu, Lukaku, Pienaar. Subs from: Robles, Hibbert, Heitinga, Jelavic, Mirallas, Barkley, Stones
United 81 Draw 42 Everton 63
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistants: S Burt, H Lennard
Fourth Official: R Madley
“It’s ridiculous to think,” said Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson ahead of United’s 2-0 victory over the Toffees on Sunday. “That we play on the Sunday and Real Madrid play on the Saturday with that extra day’s rest.”
Thus grew a thousand headlines – and whether Ferguson’s “anger” at the Premier League’s Faustian pact with Sky television is genuine or merely another tabloid circus, there is little doubt United’s manager has a point. While Real rolled over mid-table Sevilla far shy of breaking sweat on Saturday, Ferguson’s side faced a relentlessly physical encounter with with David Moyes ever-rugged Everton at Old Trafford 24 hours later.
It is not the first occasion on which Ferguson’s has openly criticised match scheduling ahead of a key European tie – and unlikely the last. After all, matches have long been scheduled not when they are most appropriate for supporters, nor indeed managers, but peak viewing times.
In the age of multi-billion pound contracts this devil has strong pull.
“We are not giving our teams a chance to be successful in Europe, but there’s nothing you can do about it,” continued Sir Alex.
“It’s nothing to do with the FA, it’s the Premier League. They agreed a contract with TV and they’re in control. You can’t reject it. What can you do? Not turn up? I’d love to do that!
“I’ve complained about and it and you’ve heard my complaints. Do you think they listen? Other countries do make sacrifices for their top teams in Europe.”
In lieu of the extra rest United fly out to Madrid on Tuesday with Ferguson having taken the bold move to deploy a strong side against Everton on Sunday. While many expected the Scot to risk a weaker side against Moyes’ outfit, Sir Alex takes significant credit in changing his mind after Manchester City’s collapse at Southampton on Saturday evening.
Ferguson’s infallible logic, shared by many supporters, was that victory over Everton would be a significant step towards English title number 20.
His players responded in kind, with right-back Rafael da Silva superb in shackling Steven Pienaar, and Phil Jones inseparable from United’s erstwhile tormentor Marouane Fellaini. Up front Wayne Rooney roamed with delicious menace, and Robin van Persie pulled Everton’s defence apart with his now customary movement.
There was none of the nervousness of last April, when United lost two goals against Everton in the final seven minutes to blow victory, and with it the league title.
Instead, the reward for Ferguson’s audacity is a healthy lead in the Premier League and an opportunity to rest players later in the season should United remain in contention on three fronts.
“I was going to make about seven changes but when I got the result, I felt this was a more important game for us because it could give us a comfortable lead,” Ferguson told Sky Sports.
“We can make changes later on in the season. It is realistic; we knew that if we got a good result today then we’d be in a positive position. We have got to win our games anyway, so it didn’t matter what happened to City on Saturday. That’s the way we should look at it and I’ve been saying that for week. If we concentrate on our own game then we’ll be okay.”
Meanwhile, Madrid hammered Sevilla 4-1 at the Bernabéu on Saturday, with former Red Cristiano Ronaldo claiming yet another Real hat-trick – his 36th, 37th, and 38th goals of storming campaign.
Ronaldo’s second, a long-range left-footed drive after a dribble that took out three Sevilla defenders, will remind United’s supporters, if any is required, of just how much damage the Portuguese forward can inflict. Ferguson may well deploy Jones to nullify Ronaldo’s threat; in this mood there is little anybody can do.
In keeping with Ferguson, Real manager José Mourinho picked a strong side to face Unai Emery’s struggling outfit. Ronaldo started the fixture alongside Gonzalo Higuian, Karim Benzema and Káká in a multi-talented attacking unit.
Not that Mourinho has a league title to concern him, with Real now 16 points behind Barcelona in La Liga. Defeat to Granada last weekend, in which Ronaldo scored the first own goal of his career, sealed Madrid’s fate if any doubt remained in an increasingly one-sided Spanish title race.
Indeed, it is Europe that offers the Portuguese coach his best chance of salvation this season, with Real facing Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey semi-final second leg later this month having drawn the opening game 1-1 at Bernabéu.
Little wonder Mournho is relishing the United tie, with the 50-year-old seeking to eclipse his old friend Ferguson in claiming a third Champions League crown.
“It is the match the world is waiting for,” Mourinho told MUTV with the coach’s customary flamboyance.
“People think we are under pressure because a big team will be out. But it is the kind of match we want and the people are not waiting for any other game. I hope we give them what they want.”
The two managers met at Old Trafford after the Reds completed victory over Everton, with Mourinho in Manchester to scout United ahead of next week’s Champions League tie.
“I feel privileged about [the meeting] because he is such an important person in the world of football and, more importantly, he is good person.
“I have always had a fantastic relationship with him and I am proud of it. We have had so many matches between us which started with Porto. We had some with Chelsea, Inter and now Real. Of course, I want to win and he wants to win, but I believe the loser will have a little bit of space to feel a little bit happy because of the friendship.”
The advantage lies with Real, of course, and not just because of the extra rest. Los Merengues haven’t lost at home in more than 30 matches. It is a statistic that places United’s task in context, 24 hours additional rest or otherwise.
Ferguson may regret deploying so many of his stars against Everton if a jaded team suffers defeat at Bernabéu, but with the title now within reach few supporters will concur.
“When you shake hands with the devil you have to pay the price,” Ferguson once said of English football’s deal with Sky.
But it is the hell of City’s title triumph that fans, and Ferguson it seems, recalled with sharp focus on Sunday.
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.
“They don’t like it up ’em!,” Lance-Corporal Jack Jones of 1970s BBC sitcom Dad’s Army fame so often declared. Yet, it wasn’t Jerry, sent packing back to Berlin after invading the home counties, but Manchester United – 19 times champion of England – that was cowed at Goodison Park on Monday night. New season, same old story, as Everton bullied Sir Alex Ferguson’s team into submission.
It was oh-so-familar. Defensive injuries, a midfield over-run by a physically superior opponent, and a lack of penetration in attacking areas. Such was the pattern of United’s performance in defeat on Merseyside that many supporters were prone to recall the Reds’ collapse at the back-end of last season. Deja vu? Not half.
Yet, for all the trauma of defeat, this is, as the Lance-Corporal might add, no time for panic; a single game into the bright new season, there is much more to come from United. Certainly, Ferguson wasn’t helped by a glut of defensive injuries that robbed his side of four first team centre-backs in Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. The quartet’s return – any of them – cannot come soon enough.
Yet, for all the injuries that have enveloped the Scot’s squad in recent months, perhaps even years, United’s problems against Everton ran far deeper. Michael Carrick’s turn at centre-back was a mitigated disaster. After all, despite Carrick’s defensive nous the 30-year-old midfielder was too easily beaten for poor position in and around United’s penalty area. That is to say little of Marouanne Fellaini’s ability to single Carrick out for a through going over in the air.
It was little surprise when the Belgian outjumped his marker to score Everton’s winning goal on 57 minutes.
But if Carrick’s relative struggles in defence proved to be United’s undoing at a set piece, the player’s absence from midfield was even more keenly felt. Despite his many critics, Carrick’s ability to screen defensively, while recycling possession, is central to what control United exerts in midfield. Without the Geordie, Paul Scholes and Tom Cleverley offered little protection to a back four that contained two midfielders.
In that there is also familiarity. Injuries, and the positional juggling that accompanies them, disrupts United’s rhythm. More often than not in midfield. Yet, while more than £40 million was invested in Ferguson’s squad this summer – a not inconsiderable sum by Glazernomic standards – none of it brought in a central midfielder to complement the plethora of injury-prone players already at the manager’s disposal.
Indeed, while Scholes and Cleverley put up impressive numbers on the night, helping United to secure around 70 per cent of possession away from home, neither was able to provide a platform for United’s attacking players to turn territory into chances, and opportunities into goals.
More worryingly still – and not for the first time in recent years – Ferguson’s team found itself bullied by a physically superior opponent. Marouane Fellaini’s brilliance was complimented by non-stop running from former Reds Phil Neville and Darron Gibson in midfield, and a superbly organised back-four.
Further forward, Ferguson can only worry about the fitness, form and – frankly – interest of star striker Wayne Rooney, who had ‘one of those games’ at Goodison Park. The £27 million striker’s performance was mirrored in its mediocrity only by Nani, who is unique among elite players in his ability drop to abject lows with such alarming frequency.
None of this is new to supporters. Been there, seen it, got the very well-worn and washed t-shirt. No surprise either that Ferguson used his post-match media duties to deflect attention away from United’s deficiencies, and on to Everton’s direct approach to the game.
“I have no criticism of my team tonight, they applied themselves well,” Ferguson told MUTV.
“They got their shots on target and our goalkeeper did very well. We had a couple of moments. I thought maybe Danny Welbeck was pushed as he went into the box. That was a big moment and Tom Cleverley had his shot blocked by Phil Jagielka on the line in the second half. We played really good football at times.
“Fellaini is a handful. He’s a big, tall, gangly lad and they just lumped the ball towards him all the time. That’s all they did and they worked it from that base. But he got the goal for them so it’s justified.”
Yet, there were positives despite United suffering opening day defeat for the first time since 2004. While Cleverley maintained his normal up-beat pass-and-move style, Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa impressed with a range of passing and movement in the hole behind Rooney. Both auger well for the remainder of the season.
Kagawa in particular had fans intrigued; a player of the type Ferguson has never signed previously, deployed in the central position – floating between midfield and attack – that brought so much joy for Borussia Dortmund in the past two years. Any more of this and Kagawa’s £17 million fee will be the very definition of value.
Then there was Robin van Persie, who made a low-key debut as a late second-half substitute, but will surely contribute far more over the next nine months.
And it is the role of Ferguson’s new signings that fascinates most, with the 70-year-old manager needing to crowbar Rooney, Kagawa and van Persie into the side, while multiple attacking options compete for what might be just a single remaining place in the side.
In this there remains a problem – how to balance plentiful flair, with the need to exert some control in midfield. At Goodison United failed to square that circle, despite enjoying so much possession. But while ball retention may be nine-tenths of the law, United so rarely looked like troubling old-boy Tim Howard in Everton’s goal on Monday night.
The question now is both how Ferguson finds the right balance, but perhaps more importantly, how he compromises United’s better players the least. It may be no time to panic, but the after just one game of the new season old failings ring some highly audible alarm bells. Particularly through midfield.
A comfortable win over Fulham at Old Trafford next Saturday will go some way to dampening the chorus, but it is unlikely to be the last time this debate is aired over the season.