Everton and Manchester United have both fallen well below expectations in the Premier League this season, but on Saturday they meet at Wembley and have the chance to move to within 90 minutes of lifting the FA Cup.
This is a do or die encounter for Everton boss Roberto Martinez, who is desperately hoping that his side can salvage something from this competition and take a slight amount of the emphasis away from a woeful run in the league that culminated in the embarrassing Merseyside derby defeat to Liverpool. The Spaniard is under immense pressure and his job is very much under threat, so he needs his players more than ever to turn in a top performance.
Their cause has not been helped by a sudden shortage of defenders, a problem exacerbated by the sending off of Ramiro Funes Mori in midweek in a game which also saw the struggling John Stones taken off as a precaution. The back four that Martinez selects here will very much be of the patchwork variety, so it is key that shielding midfielders Gareth Barry and James McCarthy give them the maximum protection.
The Toffees will be pinning their hopes on leading scorer Romelu Lukaku, who will hope to get more of a look-in here than he did at Anfield, and can be relied upon to deliver the goods should a chance fall his way. But Man Utd have every right to be considered the favourites; not only on current form but when it is considered that they have won both league meetings this term without conceding.
There is plenty of confidence surrounding Louis van Gaal’s men at present, and they may look back what has at times been a tumultuous campaign with some affection should they lift the FA Cup and manage to secure a place in the Premier League’s top four. Thanks to a strong run of results, both appear to be realistic targets but the pressure on them here comes through a sheer weight of expectation, with the supporters expecting an end to a three-year trophy drought.
Young striker Marcus Rashford gets his first chance to shine at Wembley here and will certainly be fancying his chances of adding to his already impressive tally, but it looks set to be a day where the more creative players will have the biggest influence. Michael Carrick is always a threat in his role as the deep-lying playmaker, while Juan Mata must not be given too much time on the ball by Everton as he looks to conjure something special. Set-pieces could also prove pivotal in what is a repeat of the 2009 semi-final, where penalties settled it in Everton’s favour.
Along with the suspended Funes Mori, Everton are without Seamus Coleman and Phil Jagielka, while Gerard Deulofeu, Arouna Kone and Muhamed Besic will all be pushing for recalls.
By contrast, Man Utd have no new injury concerns and will have captain Chris Smalling despite going off with a knock against Crystal Palace.