Everton captain Phil Neville returns once again to Old Trafford on Saturday to do battle with his old club Manchester United. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Manchester United will host Everton FC at Old Trafford for an early afternoon Barclays Premier League match on Saturday. In the reverse fixture back in September at Goodison Park, Everton scored twice at the death to earn a dramatic 3-3 draw. After Steven Pienaar put the Toffees up 1-0 in the first half, United answered back with goals by Darren Fletcher, Nemanja Vidic, and Dimitar Berbatov. However, the Reds failed to earn victory after both Tim Cahill and Mikel Arteta snatched goals in stoppage time. The open-ended game and amazing stoppage time comeback was surely a treat for neutrals and Everton supporters; it was quite the heartbreaker for United supporters.
Manchester United: United come into the match top of the Premier League table and as semi-finalists in the UEFA Champions League. They are six points clear of both Chelsea FC and Arsenal FC domestically and they will travel to Germany on Tuesday to clash with Schalke 04 in an European tie. However, in recent matches, the Reds have slipped up. In the past week, they suffered defeat by rival Manchester City at Wembley in a FA Cup semi-final tie and they disappointedly dropped two points at St James' Park versus Newcastle United this past Tuesday in a league match. With league ties versus Arsenal and Chelsea awaiting them along with a two-legged clash with Schalke, United seek all three points on Saturday in order to provide themselves a slight cushion for the run-in.
Luckily for United, injuries are not a significant concern for the club. However, fatigue certainly is with a seemingly important match every three or four days at the current moment. Owen Hargreaves and Anders Lindegaard continue to be out due to long-term injuries. Paul Scholes is unavailable due to suspension. Fletcher likely is out as well as he's been battling a virus for some time now; his current fight is to regain fitness. Rafael has yet to be featured since being forced off with an injury versus Chelsea in a Champions League match earlier this month.
*UPDATE* Rafael is back with the squad. Fletcher is still training and he's estimated to return to the squad in 10 days. Berbatov has a slight groin strain.
Everton: The Toffees continue their recent pattern of starting the season off slow and surging at it's end. They currently sit 7th in the table after having gone unbeaten in their last seven league matches. Premier League play is all that remains for the visitors, however, their ambition lies in their desire to finish ahead of their rival Liverpool in the table, who currently sit 6th.
Injuries are certainly a concern for the club, which makes Everton's current run of good-form all the more impressive. Former United striker Louis Saha and Marouane Fellaini are unavailable due to season-ending injuries. Cahill and Jose Baxter appear to be unavailable as well for Saturday's match. Arteta is anticipated to make his return from injury at Old Trafford while Johnny Heitinga is expected to undergo a fitness test ahead of the match after suffering form a hamstring injury this past weekend versus Blackburn Rovers.
United manager Sir Alex Ferguson will surely make his lineup choices while eyeing his side's upcoming matches versus Schalke and Arsenal in the coming week. Edwin van der Sar is first choice in goal, but Tomasz Kuszczak may be asked to deputize for the 40-year-old Dutchman. Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, and Patrice Evra are all first-choice in defense, however, the latter two may be rested as well on Saturday. If so, Chris Smalling and Fabio may possibly fill-in. Either John O'Shea or Rafael are likely at right-back. The same thought applies in the central midfield; will current first-choice Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs be rested ahead of Tuesday's tie? If so, Darron Gibson and Anderson are possibilities to be featured on Saturday afternoon. With Fergie's propensity to play Park Ji-Sung in away matches during European competition, the South Korean midfielder may be rested as well. Antonio Valencia, Nani, and Giggs are all possible as wingers versus Everton. Either Berbatov or Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez are likely to be paired alongside Wayne Rooney in attack. Below in the diagram is my guess at United's lineup (4-4-2) on Saturday.
As for Everton, their lineup projection is a bit more straight-forward. Tim Howard will be in goal. His center-back pairing is likely to be Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka. Leighton Baines will be the left-back and Tony Hibbert the right-back. In recent matches, the Toffees have used a 4-2-3-1 shape. Former United player Phil Neville is likely one choice as a holding midfielder, and rumored United target Jack Rodwell is likely to start alongside him in the central midfield. Leon Osman will likely play as the central-attacking-midfielder in support of striker Jermaine Beckford. Seamus Coleman and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov are the anticipated wide players.
Be sure to check back in with us and we'll continually update this projection with any new injury or personnel news that comes in prior to kick-off.
A few tactical keys:
* Containing Baines: Everton have created the majority of their goal-scoring chances from their left-side. However, Everton also has the tendency to concede goals where the opponent's attacking genesis is the from the same side. This is all because Baines gets forward so aggressively from his left-back position and into the attack. He currently has 4 goals and 11 assists in league, the latter of which is extraordinary for a left-back. The 4 goals are impressive as well, but Baines is Everton's penalty-kick taker. I anticipated Valencia as United's winger on that side because he is exceptional at pinning-back threatening full-backs. Park is possible here as well for the same tactical reason. This side of the pitch may be the deciding battleground in the match.
* Between the lines: Another key battleground in this match will be in between the defense and midfield lines for both United and Everton. Both sides have in-form attackers that will likely attempt to come into this space looking to create. United fans are fully aware of Rooney's stellar play as of late in a withdrawn and central playmaking role, however, some might not be aware that Everton's Osman has been in good form of late as well. The Everton attacker has 3 goals and 3 assists in his past six matches in mostly a withdrawn role. In Everton's 4-2-3-1 shape, they will have two holding midfielders that will provide a natural positional foil to Rooney. He will likely be up against Neville throughout much of the afternoon. In United's 4-4-2 shape, and sometimes more 4-2-3-1 recently, their central midfielders don't tend to play as deep. One of them will need to monitor Osman's movements if the Everton attacker continually comes deep.
* Not losing focus subconsciously: Okay, this is admittedly more psychological than tactical. Nonetheless, it is an important key for this match. United have some monster matches coming up; the next four being away to Schalke, away to Arsenal, Schalke again, and Chelsea. They're also playing at Old Trafford on Saturday where they've only dropped two points for the entire season thus far. It would be very easy to overlook Everton and be overconfident for this match. This would be a mistake versus an Everton side that is playing very good football right now. If the United squad is rotated significantly, that's fine because it's likely necessary for some key players to rest. It's important for the entire squad to show resolve after going winless in the past two matches and show the grit that has taken them top of the table and to the semi-finals of the European Cup.
Odds: Manchester United 2/5, Draw 10/3, Everton 13/2
Prediction: United 2-1 Everton
SB Nation's Everton site: Royal Blue Mersey