David Moyes has experienced a welcome respite from the intense scrutiny on his abject performance as Manchester United manager in recent weeks. With many expecting Manchester United to be embarrassed against Bayern Munich, they kept their credibility in tact despite emerging with nothing tangible from a 4-2 aggregate defeat. In the Premier League, things have picked up somewhat, too, with victories over Aston Villa and Newcastle United by a combined score of 8-1.
But the pressure could easily return with a vengeance at the home of his former club on Sunday. It is difficult not to view recent results as the most temporary of reprieves. It is, let’s not forget, less than a month since Moyes oversaw back-to-back home defeats in the Premier League to United’s two biggest rivals by 3-0 score lines.
United were rightly praised for their tenacity against the European champions, yet it was a result that condemned the Premier League champions to a season without the Champions League for the first time in 18 years. And in very few matches can a club of Manchester United’s ambitions and pedigree play as they did against Bayern, in a manner that shows such deference to their opponents. Moyes has so far failed to shrug off the pragmatism that he largely prospered with while in charge at Goodison Park, yet by the end led to many Everton fans not exactly mourning his departure.
That United have the best away record in the Premier League while simultaneously having lost more games at home than Norwich City and West Brom speaks volumes for the problems Moyes has had in taking the initiative when he is compelled to do so. Both his tactics and his public comments overwhelmingly point to a man happy in the role of the underdog, more concerned about the strengths of the opposition than either talking up or playing to those of his own team.
In his time at Everton, he famously failed to win in 45 matches at the homes of the Premier League’s traditional big four of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. That record has continued since taking the reins at Old Trafford. United have taken just one point from visits to the current top four and that in a dreadful, nervy affair at the Emirates Stadium. Their only win home or away against the Premier League’s top six this season came against an Arsenal side even more fearful of contests with the top sides.
Moyes deserves a respectful reception when he returns to Goodison Park and will surely get it by the majority. However few in attendance would surely want to see the Scot back in charge of their side. His replacement Roberto Martinez has undoubtedly benefited from the strong foundations Moyes laid down, but he has been a breath of fresh air to both players and supporters. Under the astute Spaniard, Everton now have a defined but still flexible style while always looking to impose their will on their opponents. The 3-0 victory over Arsenal two weeks ago was a case in point. Martinez worked out Arsenal’s weakness and successfully implemented a plan to exploit it. Contrast that to a match against Arsenal at a similar stage last season when Everton realistically needed a win to have a chance of taking fourth spot. Instead they failed to take the initiative and walked away with a credible, but ultimately unhelpful, goalless draw.
The challenge now for Everton is to avoid a situation where the path may be different but the destination the same. A 3-2 defeat at home to Crystal Palace in midweek means that Everton are now on the outside looking in once more in the battle for the final Champions League place.
It was a match that exposed the understandable lack of depth in a squad that has received a fraction of the investment of the teams they are looking to compete against. One of the underrated key figures of their season, James McCarthy, started on the bench, with Martinez not prepared to risk the midfielder’s muscular problem for the full 90 minutes.
His return against Manchester United will provide a boost, but the team’s ability to lift themselves immediately from Wednesday’s disappointment will be key. They can only hope that Arsenal drop points in their final four matches, but Everton will surely need to win out to have any chance.
Should Everton recover physically and mentally, then Martinez’s greater inclination than his predecessor to set up his team and make changes to it in search of a victory means his side could well repeat their narrow win at Old Trafford from earlier in the season.
Prediction: Everton 1-0 Manchester United
Everton: Martinez has confirmed that James McCarthy is fit to return to the starting lineup, but Phil Jagielka and Steven Pienaar will again miss out.
Manchester United: Wayne Rooney and Marouane Fellaini will both be fit to take on their former club but Robin van Persie, Rafael and Jonny Evans are all still sidelined.
Where to watch: The Premier League contest will kick off at 11:10 a.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by NBCSN, with a live stream provided by NBC Sports Live Extra.