To kick off the weekend prep, thought I'd start a weekly theme where I dedicate one whole article to the biggest game on. I did think about doing the West Ham v Chelsea match, but I think I covered Chelsea and the whole Benitez saga a couple of weeks ago, I wanted to do something different.
With just 1pt between the Manchester clubs at the top of the table, it was either gonna be Man City-Everton or Reading against Man United. I could be eating my words on Sunday, but the City game seems the game that is most likely to provoke an upset. I think City's match ought to be slightly tighter and has the added spice of the race for 4th spot, which Everton will be keen to put pressure on Tottenham, West Brom and Chelsea for.
It's all to play for then, as both the Manchester clubs play their final matches before the crucial derby at the Etihad next weekend. Let's have a look at the man v man battles:
Pablo Zabaleta (RB) vs. Steven Pienaar (LM)- if Zabaleta continues his attacking mentality to offer support for the flanks in this match, he could leave a fair bit of space for Pienaar to exploit, which he has proven he can do effectively. The South African was considered one of Everton's best players in the match against Arsenal and will have Leighton Baines combining with him by making forward runs. Also, if Moyes wants to change it around in the second half, he has Bryan Oviedo on the bench, who has plenty of pace and grabbed an assist the week before against Norwich. Many people say Everton have the best left-side in the country, so Zabaleta could be in for a tough afternoon.
Vincent Kompany + Matija Nastasic (CB) vs. Nikica Jelavic (ST)- Jelavic has often been played as the only recognised striker in 4-4-1-1 formations at Everton lately, with Fellaini causing some havoc in the air just behind him. I would say 5 goals from 14 games for the Croatian this season hasn't exactly proved this system to be a resounding success, and he may find chances hard to come by against Man City, who have the best defensive record in the division. Having said that, Nastasic looked poor against Wigan on Wednesday night, and Jelavic may see him as the weak-link in the defence for him to exploit. I think Kompany can just about handle the Everton striker, but if he has to move out of position to do so, that could potentially open up space for the likes of Fellaini, Naismith, Baines and Pienaar to make attacking runs into the box unchallenged.
Marouane Fellaini (unmarked?)- I think it was a masterstroke from David Moyes to move Fellaini up to an attacking midfield role and build the team around him. The Belgian's control of the ball is second to none, if you direct the ball vaguely towards his shoulder, he will always take it down and bring others around him into play- all of a sudden you're looking to get a shot away from being in your own half. That's how effective Fellaini is. Plus, having him in the hole role instead of being a target man striker means nobody in the opposition team quite knows who should be marking him- the general confusion he creates has been instrumental in a lot of Everton goals. Man City will have an extremely difficult task to keep this guy quiet.
Aleksandr Kolarov (LB) vs. Steven Naismith (RM)- Kolarov looks more naturally like a left-winger to me than a left-back. He might have an impressive free-kick on him, but defensively he doesn't seem comfortable and wants to play further up the pitch. Naismith's 3 goals from 13 Premiership matches this season is a respectable return from right midfield, he's in decent goalscoring form at the moment and times his runs to the back post impeccably. I'm not sure Kolarov has the spacial awareness as a defender to stop him from getting on the end of some crosses from the left-wing. There could be more danger here for City than most will predict.
Yaya Toure (CDM) vs. Darron Gibson (CM)- Gibson has been a decent buy for Everton and fits in with their ethos of building a hardworking team, but there'll be no beating Yaya Toure in midfield. He's got everything you want from a midfield general: work rate, positional sense, tough tackling, passing ability, shots from range- if there's a better central midfielder in the Premiership, it's certainly not Darron Gibson.
Gareth Barry (CDM) vs. Leon Osman (CM)- I've got a soft spot for Osman, I like how he's been at Everton for almost 10 years and he's never wanted to leave, just gets on with the job. Javi Garcia's start to his City career has been scupperred by an injury, he featured against Wigan in midweek before being taken off, but I've got a feeling Mancini will play it safe and play Gareth Barry in this one. Barry isn't one of Man City's better players, but neither really is Osman for Everton, so I reckon the majority of the action will be out wide.
James Milner (RM) vs. Leighton Baines (LB)- the clash of the workhorses. James Milner is fantastic at tracking back from midfield and I'm sure Mancini will play him to help Zabaleta combat Everton's threatening-looking left flank, whilst Baines is well known for his adventurous forward-runs. We can expect to see a lot of stamina, grit and determination in this battle for space, so Milner needs to be given extra defensive responsibilities. Who comes out on top on Everton's left flank is likely to have a big say in the outcome of the match.
David Silva (LM) vs. Tony Hibbert (RB)- I like Hibbert for similar reasons to Osman- he's been a good servant to the club but he won't be able to deal with Silva. The Spaniard's magical feet ought to be too much for Hibbert, although I'd expect him to cut inside quite a bit and operate in that attacking midfield area, where he'll have more space. I can see Everton struggling with him, because he can lose his marker with ease, but if they put two men on him, that'll free up more space for Tevez, Aguero and/or Dzeko. You can't win.
Sergio Aguero (ST) vs. Phil Jagielka (CB)- if he plays, this will be Kun Aguero's 3rd game in the space of a week, so Jagielka has a chance of seeing an off-day for the Argentine. On the other hand, there's still the options of players like Dzeko and Super Mario coming off the bench. I've a feeling Jagielka could get a slice of luck, because I wouldn't expect Aguero to be quite at his best.
Carlos Tevez (ST) vs. Sylvain Distin (CB)- Tevez has got the advantage of not having played during the week, whereas Distin has. Distin may be experienced enough, but I doubt he'll have enough to deal with Tevez's energy and quality of movement. I fancy Tevez for a goal.
Man City can go top temporarily with a win.
Man City play a couple of hours before United do against Reading, which I think works marginally in their favour psychologically. The United players will undoubtedly have the City game on their minds in the lead-up to kick off, perhaps rather than the game itself and will have the added pressure of reacting to a result. City don't have to do that and can only be concentrating on their game- I think that will benefit them going into this. They should have a good mindset.
The Citizens would go top, for the time being with a win, and would stay there if Man United dropped any points against Reading- it'll be a good incentive for them to put so much pressure onto their neighbours ahead of their match.
Another important factor for City, is that the Manchester Derby is coming up, which ought to impact the team in two ways. Firstly, if they can gain 2pts on United this weekend, they'll go in the lead, meaning that they won't necessarily need to win the derby, which would be a big advantage. If United do win their game, it's also a case for City of keeping the distance before the match- if they can stay within 1pt of Man U, it'll mean that a win for them in the derby would see them go 2pts clear, rather than it being a reduction of deficit.
The other way in which I'd expect the Manchester derby to affect the team, is that everyone will be fighting for their place ahead of that match. All four strikers particularly, will want to prove their worth to the team. You'd think all the players would be working extra hard in training to try and put their case for a start forward, especially as Mancini has been known for his tinkering methods.
I would definately say the incentive is there for Man City to get the three points, and not knowing or thinking about their rivals' results could well offer them a psychological advantage, in the respective clubs' final matches before the crucial Manchester derby.
Everton want 4th
I'm not saying the Toffees would be out of the race for that final Champions League spot if they lose this, because there's still a long way to go in the season, but they'd have their work cut out. Tottenham have picked themselves up brilliantly with two victorys since the defeat to Arsenal, they've hit form at completely the wrong time from Everton's point of view, because the two teams have got to play each other soon, before Everton have got unenviable trips to Stoke and West Ham.
Of course nothing can be guarenteed, but I don't think Everton can afford to write off this match completely. Dropped points against Reading and Norwich means they should really endeavor to get all 3 in this match, though you'd have to think they'd take a draw if it was offered it to them. If they lose this however, they are going to be in trouble when they face Tottenham, who I make favourites for that 4th spot.
Then again, maybe they need to lower their ambitions a touch. I'd be praising the job David Moyes has done if they had spent the amount they have over the past 10 years, and were midtable. To be talking about them being disappointed not to get 4th is a real testament to the job the Scot has done, and let's not forget they still might.
I initially predicted a clean sheet for City, purely because they've got the best defensive record in the Premiership. Having considered the possible line-ups though, I can't help but feel that there are weaknesses at the back Everton can exploit - particularly if Nastasic plays and he gets drawn out of position, Kompany could become rather isolated alongside the attacking fullbacks - so I'd say there's a goal in this for Everton.
On balance, I think City can score two. I'd expect them to be highly motivated, I think Tevez has the tenacity to outrun Sylvain Distin and grab himself a goal, and Dzeko always looks a good bet for a winner coming off the bench.