Next week is the first of a highly anticipated two-legged UEFA Champions League tie with Real Madrid. First, though, for Manchester United, is a challenging Premier League clash on Sunday at Old Trafford against Everton FC. During the reverse fixture in August at Goodison Park, Marouane Fellaini scored the game's only goal during a man-of-the-match performance. During this same fixture last season, the Toffees rallied to score two late goals at the Theatre of Dreams in a 4-4 draw. That result factored heavily in United losing the title to Manchester City.
Form Guide: United enter the weekend top of the league table and nine-points clear of nearest title-contending rival City. Thus far, Sir Alex Ferguson's side has earned 62 points from 25 matches. In their past 13 league matches, they're unbeaten and only 4 points have been dropped. The unbeaten streak domestically is at 16 games total when FA Cups ties are considered. The most recent result was a 1-0 defeat at Fulham last weekend.
Team News: The only player unavailable for sure is Darren Fletcher. Ferguson has indicated that Phil Jones' illness is not as serious as England U-21 boss Stuart Pearce revealed it to be. Ashley Young is now fit. (Full Team News Report)
Form Guide: Everton are currently in a fight for Champions League qualification. Entering the weekend, the Toffees sit 5th in the table with 42 points from 25 matches. David Moyes' side has only been defeated once since November 17 and they are unbeaten in their past five league fixtures. Their most recent result was a 3-3 draw last weekend versus Aston Villa.
United: Despite Everton being a formidable foe, Ferguson is likely to make his selection choices with the upcoming Real Madrid midweek tie in mind. In addition, a nine-point lead in the title-race provides a bit of room for error, even if the gaffer nor the United players would ever admit that. It's uncertain, though, what tactics and selection choices Ferguson has in mind for the Bernabeu. In turn, that makes it difficult to project what lineup will feature on Sunday against the Toffees.
In goal, David de Gea is likely but Anders Lindegaard is always possible for a surprise start. In central defense, any of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, or Phil Jones are possible. Rafael is the clear first-choice right-back but he could be rested ahead of a difficult match-up with Cristiano Ronaldo. If that happens, then Jones or Smalling are possible to deputise. Patrice Evra is almost certain at left-back.
In midfield, Michael Carrick is expected to start and he will likely be partnered by either Tom Cleverley or Anderson. Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs could be in contention as well. Out wide, either Antonio Valencia or Nani is anticipated on the right while any of Nani, Young, Giggs, Danny Welbeck, or Shinji Kagawa could be selected for a role on the left.
In attack, Robin van Persie will start and he could be partnered by any of Wayne Rooney, Welbeck, Kagawa, or Javier Hernandez (Chicharito). The latter two could be rested, though, after traveling back from international duty to Manchester from Japan and Mexico, respectively.
Everton: Former United goalkeeper Tim Howard is Everton's No.1 and in front of him in central-defense, Sylvain Distin will start and he'll be partnered by either Phil Jagielka or John Heitinga. Leighton Baines will be the left-back and opposite of him at right-back will be either Jagielka or Phil Neville.
In midfield, Darron Gibson and Leon Osman are expected in the double-pivot but Neville is in contention as well -- this is a role the Everton captain often plays against his former club. Out wide in attack, Steven Pienaar is likely on the left while Kevin Mirallas is anticipated on the right. Osman or Steven Naismith could pop up out wide as well.
In attack, Victor Anichebe is expected to lead the line in attack and he'll likely be supported by Fellaini -- if fit. Nikica Jelavic has been in poor form as of late but he could make a surprise start.
* Containing Everton's left-side: Quite frankly, Everton has the most dangerous left-side in England. In addition, no other team in the Premier League attacks more down this side (44% on the left, 26% through the middle, 30% on the right) than the Toffees. In our Q&A with Royal Blue Mersey -- the Everton community on the SB Nation network -- one of their writers -- Calvin -- described the Baines and Pienaar partnership like this:
"Bainaar, what a fantastic pair! The level of communication between the two is so subliminal that a commentator once quipped "These two could find each other in the dark" during a game. They really do think alike, and always seem to be able to perceive an opening where one runs into and the other sends a perfectly weighted ball there."
In general, Baines often storms forward for overlapping runs when Pienaar cuts inside. The Englishman's left-foot is a can opener and this is perhaps evident by this 3.4 chances created per game -- the most in the Premier League. Containing the left-back -- as much as possible -- is key to limiting Everton's chances. Whoever United's right-winger is -- whether that be Valencia, Nani, or somebody else -- it is absolutely vital that this player track back when necessary. Nani failed to do this adequately at Goodison Park in August.
Moyes instructs his side to swing the ball from side-to-side until the opposition's shape can be manipulated for an overload on a flank -- particularly the left-side. This is aided by the tendency of Fellaini to drift into an inside left position in attack and Osman's runs forward into this same space from central-midfield. Gibson, in particular, is highly adept to spraying accurate long diagonals out to the touchline. All of this though, can present an opportunity for the opposition.
If United can dispossess Everton high enough up the pitch, then they can exploit the space in behind Baines. Distin typically does well to cover for the left-back but Moyes' side can be vulnerable through the middle when the center-back is sucked out wide -- a clever run into this vacated space can cause Everton a lot of problems. These are the spaces United should look to exploit when possession is won. This side of the pitch is likely to be the game's key battleground.
* Everton's crossing and aerial threat: Everton's 27 cross attempts per game are joint second most in the league and Baines' 3.0 attempts per game -- at an impressive 30.8% success rate -- are second most in the league as well. There are two general ways to limit this threat from the Moyes' men: (1) defend well on the flanks and close down quickly to prevent crosses from being sent in and also, (2) simply win the aerial duels and the second-ball when those crosses do get whipped in.
Valencia is in poor form at the moment but perhaps he still gets deployed on the right as a 'defensive-winger'. Even though the Ecuadorian is struggling to beat his marker at the moment, he still is willing to put in a defensive shift. This could prove vital against Baines as it's something -- as previously mentioned -- that Nani failed to do in August. With Hibbert and Coleman injured, Everton's crossing won't be as much of a threat on the right.
It's Everton's central and left-central zone in attack where crosses are typically sent into by Everton's wide men. It'll be interesting to see if Ferguson uses Vidic in this match to combat Everton's aerial threat or if he saves him for the daunting midweek match with Madrid. If the Serbian does feature, he could switch to right of center so that he's in the zone to take on Fellaini.
During the reverse fixture, a common move for Everton was for Jelavic to move right so that Vidic (left-center-back that night) was forced to occupy him while Fellaini went left of center and isolated himself on a hapless Carrick. The Belgian was the pivot in attack that night and everything went through him -- when he won the ball in an aerial duel or when he brought the ball down onto his chest, Pienaar darted inside to pick up the ball between the lines or a pass was flicked out wide for Baines near the touchline. This move was unstoppable at Goodison.
United's right-sided central-defender will have a daunting task. Perhaps, either Jones -- if fit -- or Smalling is deployed at right-back instead of Rafael so that more aerial assistance is provided in this zone. In this same fixture last season at Old Trafford, Fellaini and Jelavic did well to isolate themselves at the far-post on Rafael for crosses -- Jelavic made United pay when he finished from a Hibbert cross.
On set-pieces, if Vidic starts, hopefully it's him tracking Fellaini. United run a hybrid man/zonal marking system on corners where they look to man-mark the opposition's three most dangerous aerial threats. For whatever (asinine) reason in August, Carrick was marking Fellaini and not Vidic. United deserved to be punish for this when Fellaini
headed haired in the winning goal.
KO: 4:00pm GMT, 11:00am EST | Old Trafford
Live TV: Sky Sports 1 (U.K.), FOX Soccer (U.S.)
Referee: Mark Halsey
Odds: Manchester United 8/13, Draw 3/1, Everton 4/1