Manchester United host Everton on Sunday in a fixture that has ramifications for both the top four battle and the title race. With City slipping up again last week, United can continue to extend their lead at the top, whilst Everton will want to keep up the pace in their pursuit of a Champions League spot.
These sides played out a 4-4 at Old Trafford last season - a result that contributed to United's title choke. Despite that draw last season, Everton are at 5.50 for a win, with United clear favourites at 1.62 and a draw at 3.85. One thing seems assured, though: this fixture should be an entertaining one.
Marouane Fellaini is a doubt, but he was on the bench for Belgium in mid-week so will likely be fit to face United. Seamus Coleman and Tony Hibbert might also miss the trip to Old Trafford, meaning that Phil Jagielka will probably continue at right-back, with Jonny Heitinga at centre-back alongside Sylvain Distin.
For United, Phil Jones has been ruled out, whilst there are doubts over the fitness of Michael Carrick and Ashley Young. Young will probably miss out, which means Antonio Valencia should continue on the right. Wayne Rooney will continue behind Robin van Persie, as the two look to continue what has been a productive partnership in recent weeks.
The role of Baines and the battle out wide
Manchester United have played with plenty of width this season, particularly when they operate in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Rooney playing off Van Persie and two wide men. If they continue with this tactic against Everton, we could see a fascinating battle emerge, particularly down Manchester United's right-hand side.
The role of Leighton Baines here is crucial. The left-back is, to a degree, the playmaker for Everton, dictating the play down the flank and looking to get into advanced positions. This means Rafael and Valencia (or whoever plays right wing) will have to work hard defensively, and that there will be opportunities in behind for United to exploit. A look at Baines' average position from the recent 3-3 draw with Villa highlights this:
Despite being a left-back, he is positioned in an incredibly advanced position, almost as a left winger (no.3, hidden beneath 22). This means that Leon Osman (21) has a real job to do with regards to plugging the gaps in behind. It can leave Distin, who now lacks pace, exposed. Baines had the third most touches of the ball in this game (73), demonstrating his influence from left-back. He also attempted five key passes - significantly more than any other player on the field.
Stopping Baines is thus crucial to stopping Everton. United are quite well equipped to do this, given that they often start games with width. Although Valencia hasn't been in great form this season, but his direct approach down the right flank will certainly give Baines something to think about going the other way.
Rafael too is more than capable of threatening on the overlap given his own attacking quality. Manchester United actually focus 40% of their attacks down the right, whilst Everton focus 44% of their attacks down their left, meaning that we are sure to witness a direct clash here.
Two different styles of attack
United attack with a great deal of fluidity, often hitting sides with swift counter-attacks down the flanks. Additionally, there is a great deal of craft in their attacks, thank to the many technical ball players they have at their disposal.
Everton, on the other hand, take a more direct approach. Fellaini is often the target, moving from an attacking midfield position into a centre-forward role to win headers, with Victor Anichebe looking to latch onto the second balls. This was a tactic that worked brilliantly as Everton beat Manchester United 1-0 at Goodison Park on the opening weekend of the Premier League.
Fellain's fitness, then, will be crucial to Everton's success on Sunday. If he is absent, it will be a major blow to their hopes of getting anything out of the tie. It will also be a huge test for Rio Ferdinand to marshal Fellaini effectively, given that the make-shift pairing of Vidic and Carrick had such a hard time against him back in August. The two Everton front men are incredibly physical and will certainly make things tough for United.
Everton will go into this game believing that they can come away with something. They might need to as well: having won just two of their last six Premier League games, they can ill-afford another slip up in the race for fourth. Manchester United will want to win to heap more pressure on City, who face a potentially tricky game away at Southampton on Saturday evening.
Baines will be key. If United can nullify him then they can potentially cause Everton a lot of problems. At the other end, Fellaini will be Everton's main target, as he was at Goodison in the reverse fixture. United's centre-backs will need to be at their very best to deal with the big Belgian.
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