What would always have been an intriguing encounter takes on added significance tomorrow lunchtime when what is normally a competitive affair takes place amid a backdrop of issues both on and off the field.
Everton’s poor return of one point from three games is not necessarily a fair reflection on the way in which David Moyes’ side have performed over the opening 270 minutes of the new season. A clanger DVD entry from Tim Howard cost them a point at Blackburn, while a Wolves side that had been pulverised for the opening 45 scrambled in only one goal behind and rallied to equalise on the break. Then in their last outing at Villa Park, the Toffees managed the impressive feat of cultivating half a dozen great opportunities without actually finding the net. One point could easily be seven, and their defence, with new England star Phil Jagielka at the core, looks as solid as ever. The problem has been converting territory into goals, with new recruit Jermaine Beckford coming in for some harsh early reviews. Something which Moyes will know is that key moments against a side like United have to be maximised to your advantage if you intend to get a positive result from the game. The usually reliable back four, along with Howard, will need to perform, and the end product in the opposing box will need to be much-improved. One point from twelve, regardless of mitigating circumstances, is deeply worrying.
Seven out of nine is solid enough for United, although the two visitors to Old Trafford, namely Newcastle and West Ham, appeared to do little more than roll over for last season’s runners up. Indeed, the one side who approached their joust with the Red Devils with a positive mindset ended up with a very credible 2-2 draw. What Fulham avoided was the trap of showing those in Red Shirts too much respect, and they exposed certain defensive frailties that United have usually had due to the positive way in which they go into every game. With or without Rio Ferdinand, a side that is geared up to attacking like United are is always vulnerable to a quick break or a side that gets midfield players breaking the lines. Tim Cahill is the personification of such a player, and will need to be watched. Every season, United’s detractors hope and pray that the old guard of Giggs and Scholes have become what boxing enthusiasts call ‘shot fighters’. Every season they have been disappointed, and this two-pronged defiance of father time looks set to continue for at least another nine months. In the week in which England finally woke up to the realisation that a team with only one of Lampard or Gerrard actually performs better as a whole, a penny for the thoughts of the carrot-haired creativo would be, one suspects, money well spent.
There is of course the small matter of the reception for former Goodison God Wayne Rooney, who would probably not have chosen this fixture as the next domestic clash after some unfortunate allegations about his personal life. While both Ferguson and Moyes see themselves as above the tittle-tattle of the tabloids and OK!! magazine, football supporters rarely make the effort to occupy such moral ground. Expect some colourful chants tomorrow, and then the inevitable goal from the messiah-turned-Judas himself. Everton will be fired up for this one, but victory may prove beyond them. A 1-1 draw may well be the outcome.