Manchester United aim for their first win at Everton in four years on Saturday in what could be one of the season’s defining games.
Louis van Gaal’s outfit were being touted as potential champions before being beaten 3-0 at Arsenal, while the Toffees are threatening to recapture the form which almost took them to the Champions League in 2013/14.
A United win would silence some of the doubters, or an Everton triumph will confirm they are serious contenders for a top-four finish. Here are five things to watch out for:
Van Gaal’s midfield conundrum
Michael Carrick’s return to the United side last season was the catalyst for the upturn in results which eventually led to Champions League qualification. The arrivals of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin have given Van Gaal further options in the middle of the park, but this has seemingly provoked more questions than answers for the Dutchman.
There are some doubts whether Schneiderlin possesses the passing range required to ignite the Red Devils’ forward line, but the Frenchman’s absence was obvious in the Arsenal hammering. World Cup winner Schweinsteiger and England international Carrick started at the Emirates and were overawed by the energy of the Arsenal midfield.
Everton will be able to unleash one of the most threatening and direct attacking midfielders in the Premier League in Ross Barkley – who will be full of confidence after impressing on England duty – so Schneiderlin’s industry must surely see him handed a start. This leaves Van Gaal with a choice between Carrick and Schweinsteiger, and that’s without mentioning the out of favour Ander Herrera.
Everton’s defensive resolve
Roberto Martinez’s teams have always been exciting to watch. The one criticism to consistently be thrown at the Spaniard is that he struggles to instill any sense of defensive stability. The Toffees fans must have been holding their breath when John Stones and Seamus Coleman were ruled out through injury – especially with Leighton Baines already missing – meaning youngsters Brendan Galloway and Tyias Browning had to be thrown in at the deep end.
However the duo have performed commendably – with Galloway reportedly attracting interest from United – and Martinez now has the luxury of being able to welcome back Chelsea target Stones and Coleman. If Everton are to ever achieve their ultimate goal of Champions League qualification, then they need to show their metal in matches against the big boys.
While he may have lit up Goodison Park as a teenager, the blue half of Merseyside doesn’t hold great memories for Wayne Rooney in a Manchester United shirt. The forward has failed to score in his last six visits to his boyhood club.
The United skipper has looked completely out of sorts this season, scoring only once in seven Premier League matches, and his place in the England team is once again under question.
However Sir Alex Ferguson has backed his former striker to return to form, telling ESPN: “He will go on a run, don’t worry about that. All the strikers I had, everyone relied on their confidence.
“When they were scoring they think they can never stop, when they’re not scoring they think they’re never going get a goal, it’s a fact. Eric Cantona had it, Ruud van Nistelrooy had it, Andy Cole had it and then the rich stream comes along again and they’re back to normal.”
An ankle injury prevented the 30-year-old from appearing for England during the international break. A rest might have been just what Rooney required. One things for sure: he would love nothing more than to return to form back in front of the fans who used to adore him.
Lukaku vs Smalling
Two of the form players in the Premier League, the winner of this battle could determine the outcome of the match.
Since the end of last season, Chris Smalling has gone from being a punchline to one of the most assured defenders around, and seems to have become England’s first choice centre-back. On his day – and when in the mood – Romelu Lukaku can be one of the most devastating forwards in Europe, and is almost unplayable.
If Smalling manages to shackle the Belgian, United should have the quality to get all three points. However if Lukaku gets on top, Everton could run riot.
Depay to fly
Van Gaal’s £25million acquisition of Memphis Depay was one of the most highly-anticipated transfers of the summer. However as yet the 21-year-old has failed to show his best form, and has now been overshadowed by the immediate impact of Anthony Martial.
After being part of the Holland side which failed to qualify for Euro 2016, three former Dutch internationals have slammed the winger’s attitude, labeling him “lazy” and suggesting his club were getting “fed up” with his performances. Bizarrely, he was even compared to James Bond villain Goldfinger.
Depay needs a performance in the Premier League, and Saturday he may have his best chance yet if he is to line up against Seamus Coleman, who is still likely to be rusty having only just returned from injury.
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