Everton attempt to pick themselves up from their FA Cup semi-final disappointment with a return to Premier League action this weekend, but, if anything, the challenge facing David Moyes’ side is even greater than that faced at Wembley. Everton travel to Old Trafford to meet title-chasing Manchester United on Saturday, a ground and an opposition that has rarely returned so much as a draw for the men from Merseyside.
Indeed, it is seven years since Everton even brought a point back down the East Lancs road, a 1-1 draw in December 2005, while a year earlier came a 0-0 draw early in the season, Everton stifling Sir Alex Ferguson’s side at the start of what would prove to be a memorable campaign, ending in Champions League qualification. Before that, you have to look back to August 1996 for a match that did not end in an Everton defeat, when two goals from Duncan Ferguson put Everton ahead before a David Unsworth own goal with eight minutes remaining levelled the scores. Three points in 16 years is not a record to encourage optimism, even if the outcome of a fixture played nearly 20 years ago will have no bearing on the match to be played on Sunday.
The absence of Leighton Baines will have a much greater effect on Evertonian hopes. The left-back injured his hamstring against Liverpool a week ago and has been ruled out of the match at Old Trafford, with the
Replacing Baines with Neville is not a like for like change. Not only is Baines a naturally left-sided player and Neville right-sided, but Baines is far more of an attacking threat than the Everton captain. In tandem with Steven Pienaar, Baines is widely acknowledged as Everton’s most effective attacking outlet – he has scored five goals this season, making him Everton’s second-highest scorer – and as Baines goes, so do Everton’s attacking options. But for this one specific game the presence of Neville at left-back and Tony Hibbert at right-back may be a blessing in disguise, making Everton a little more robust in defence for what is almost certain to be a backs-to-the-wall performance.
Everton go to Old Trafford with little left to play for this season, only the goal of finishing as high in the table as possible. Breaking the top six is unlikely and finishing in the bottom half less likely still, leaving Everton with only the challenge of finishing higher than last year’s eighth ago to aim for.
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