Premier League champions Manchester United host Everton tonight at Old Trafford, in what should be a fascinating affair. Added to the high-quality fixture that is expected, these teams have built up something of an unexpected sporting rivalry over the last number of years.
The most important feature of this, and every game, is three points. Both sides are desperate to get a win to flex their respective muscles, and put down a marker to suggest they can reach their ambitions this season.
For United, eighth place before kick-off is less than ideal, but a win here will see them leapfrog Everton and possibly a number of other sides. For the Toffees, an unlikely victory at the home of the current champions would resonate throughout the division, and show that the Merseyside outfit are real challengers for a top-four berth this season.
The game itself has other connotations to it; namely David Moyes facing his former club for the first time since leaving for Manchester in the summer. Predecessor Roberto Martínez may well be humble, respectful and uncontroversial, but deep down inside he would surely love to get a win here and further enhance his Merseyside reputation pre-Moyes.
The Spaniard’s considerable impact already at Goodison Park and the attractive brand of football that his side are playing threaten to undermine what the Scot achieved over 11 years at Everton.
Added to the managerial rivalry and proximity on the Premier League table is the issue of transfers, former players and the link between the sides.
Moyes took assistant Steve Round and coach Phil Neville with him to Old Trafford in the summer, while Wayne Rooney will also be up against his former club. On the other side, Tim Howard once wore United’s colours, while the injured Darron Gibson also has represented both sides.
The Scottish boss also threatened to sully his reputation on Merseyside with the pursuit of two of Everton’s best players over the summer. A joint offer for Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines that was labeled ‘derisory’ by Everton made the relationship between these two sides slightly more hostile, with the Belgian eventually swapping blue for red. Baines may well yet follow suit, as the Toffees brace themselves for another United transfer assault come January.
On the pitch, Everton and United have played out some cracking fixtures over the last number of seasons – with tonight’s hosts potentially having grounds for revenge.
Tim Cahill and Mikel Arteta both scored in injury time to give the Evertonians a 3-3 draw at Goodison Park in September 2010, turning a 3-1 defeat into a point after the 90th minute of an end-to-end game.
However, more significantly, two late Everton goals against United in April 2012 played their part in the Red Devils losing the Premier League title. With the Manchester side 4-2 up and in bad need of a win to stave off a rejuvenated cross-town rival at the top of the table, Nikica Jelavić and Steven Pienaar popped up to score in the last ten minutes of an epic 4-4 draw. With Manchester City going on to be crowned Premier League champions on goal difference, Everton’s comeback was a significant milestone in United’s capitulation in the 2011-12 campaign.
Despite the recent history, personal rivalries and transfer merry-go-round, the game promises to be an excellent spectacle between two sides in top form.