MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 23: Sylvain Distin of Everton challenges Antonio Valencia of Manchester United during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Everton at Old Trafford on April 23, 2011 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Four matches to go in the quest for title number twenty. The next one up is a lunchtime affair on Sunday when Manchester United host Everton FC at the Theatre of Dreams. During the reverse fixture in October, Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) bagged the lone goal during a rather dull 1-0 contest at Goodison Park. The Toffees have failed to emerge victorious during each of their last eighteen league visits to Old Trafford.
Form Guide: United enter the weekend with 82 points from 34 matches and this has them five points clear of title-contending rival Manchester City. United have only dropped points twice in their past 14 league ties-- during a 3-3 draw away to Chelsea and during a 0-1 defeat away by Wigan Athletic -- and their most recent match came last weekend when they defeated Aston Villa 4-0. The Red Devils have already surpassed their 80 point total from last season -- a campaign that saw them conquer England for a record 19th time.
Team News: Nemanja Vidic, Darren Fletcher, Paul Pogba, and Anderson are all unavailable for the remainder of the season. Michael Owen is out for Sunday but the striker is believed to be nearing a return. Goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard is possible to return from injury as well at some point during these final weeks of the season. (Manchester United Full Team News Report)
Form Guide: Everton enter the match 7th in the table with 47 points from 33 league matches. Their most contest was a 1-2 defeat by rival Liverpool FC at Wembley during a FA Cup semi-final clash last weekend. In league, the Toffees are unbeaten in their past four matches and their most recent one was a 4-0 thrashing of Sunderland on April 9.
Team News: Influential left-back Leighton Baines is out due to a grade two hamstring tear sustained versus Liverpool. In addition, Jack Rodwell has a hamstring injury as well that will keep him out for the remainder of the season. Royston Drenthe is also unavailable for selection due to disciplinary reasons.
United: You can never be sure with Sir Alex Ferguson but most of his selection choices appear to be obvious. David de Gea will be the goalkeeper while Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, and Patrice Evra are clear choices in the back. Rafael has been the preferred choice as of late at right-back but Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are in contention due to the aerial threat that Everton presents. In central-midfield, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick are expected and they'll likely be flanked by Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia. Nani may be in contention as well on either wing. Wayne Rooney is probable up front and he's expected to be partnered by either Danny Welbeck or Chicharito.
Everton: Former United goalkeeper Tim Howard is Everton's No. 1 while Sylvain Distin and Johnny Heitinga have been the preferred pairing as of late in central-defense. Phil Jagielka is in contention as well. With Baines out, Phil Neville is anticipated to slide over to left-back while Tony Hibbert is expected at right-back. In central-midfield, expect to see the familiar face of Darron Gibson partnered by Marouane Fellaini. Out wide in attack, Leon Osman and Steven Pienaar are the most likely choices but Magaye Gueye and Seamus Coleman may be considered as well. Recent signing Nikica Jelavic is expected up front and withdrawn from him will likely be Tim Cahill.
I wrote a scouting report on Everton linked right here and much of it touches on the three tactical keys that I'm about to discuss. Be sure to check it out if you want more detail. Specifically, the piece examines the Toffees most recent match versus Liverpool and also how they might adjust without Baines being available.
* Life without Leighton Baines: Prior to being rested recently versus Sunderland ahead of the FA Cup semi-final tie versus Liverpool, Baines had made 99 successive league appearances for Everton. Thus, imagining life these days without Baines is mostly an unknown. The adventurous left-back is the key man to their attack as his ability to create chances from both open-play and set-pieces is vital to his side's success -- he's even a rare full-back that is his team's preferred penalty taker.
Everton is likely to be more structurally sound in the back without Baines' marauding runs as opponents often look to hit Everton in the space behind him. This massive channel was continually exploited by Liverpool's Luis Suarez last weekend. However, where will their chances come from? Will Pienaar be moved away from the left and will Guaye be deployed as the left-winger so that the latter can provide width in attack? If the out-of-form Coleman doesn't start on the right, then that width certainly won't come from that side. Everton is highly dependent on attacking from the flanks as evidenced by their 75% time spent attacking from there and this is more than any other Premier League side. Will there be an Everton attack without Baines?
* Can United adequately cope on set-pieces?: Everton have numerous players that are aerial threats and a simple numbers game makes defending set-pieces a worry for United. Ferdinand and Evans can pick up Fellaini and Cahill while Carrick can probably deal with Jelavic. However, who is left for United to mark Everton's center-backs when they get forward into the box for set-pieces? Will either Jones and Smalling come in for Rafael to provide an extra aerial presence? Will Dimitar Berbatov make a surprise start in place of the recently inconsistent Welbeck and Chicharito to also provide cover against this threat? Will United zonally mark? Everton manager David Moyes surely knows chances will be limited for his side so he may be concentrating heavily in training this week on nicking a goal or two from a set-piece. Fortunately for United, it won't be Baines supplying the free-kicks.
* United's wide players are likely to be their key attackers: Without Baines, Everton's full-backs are likely to stay deep and position themselves conservatively against United's tricky wingers. This should allow Young and Valencia -- or possibly Nani -- to receive a continual supply of passes to their feet rather than having to run onto long balls played into space. From here, their ability to beat their markers in 1 v 1 situations will be key to unlocking Everton's tight defense. If Moyes instructs his wingers to drop deep as well so that they can double up on United's wingers, then United's full-backs will have acres of space to get forward into. Evra and Rafael's effectiveness in the attacking half of the pitch will then be vital. The movement of Rooney and Welbeck may allow for 3 v 2 overloads on the flanks in an effort to breakdown Everton or when Evans steps out of the back, then one of United's central-midfielders can drift wide to help create overloads as well. In general though, it will be up to United's wide players to unlock and stretch a tight Everton defense -- one that has the third best defensive record in the league.
KO: 12:30pm BST, 7:30am EST | Old Trafford
Live TV: Sky Sports (U.K.), FOX Soccer (U.S.A.)
Referee: Mike Jones
Odds: Manchester United 1/3, Draw 9/2, Everton 10/1
TBB prediction: Manchester United 1-0 Everton