FIVE Key Battles that could decide Man United vs Everton

We’re in for another fantastic feast of Premier League football at the weekend; Southampton visit Tottenham in a bid to haunt former boss Mauricio Pochettino on Saturday, whilst Leicester host Burnley to decide things at the less flattering end of the league table.

That’s followed by a heavyweight Sunday afternoon. It’s maxim – Chelsea vs Arsenal, but the lunchtime kick-off witnesses Manchester United taking on Everton at Old Trafford.

The Toffees did the double over the Red Devils last season – in fact, their victory at Old Trafford in April proved to be David Moyes’ last game in charge of the former Premier League champions – so United fans will be demanding an improved performance.

But with the quality  and depth of the English top flight so immense, the majority of fixtures now come down individual battles.

With that in mind, here’s FIVE key individual contests that could decide the heavyweight tie on Sunday afternoon.

[ffc-gallery]CLICK ON LOUIS VAN GAAL TO REVEAL ALL

Louis Van Gaal[/ffc-gallery]

PHIL JONES VS ROMELU LUKAKU

Romelu Lukaku
Manchester United find themselves amid a harrowing injury crisis, but Phil Jones is tipped to return from the sidelines to face Everton, having suffered a thigh strain during England’s 2-0 victory over Switzerland earlier this month.

It’s fantastic news for Louis van Gaal – the Red Devils desperately need a centre-back with the experience and physicality to marshal record Toffees signing Romelu Lukaku on Sunday afternoon.

Likely to return to a central role after struggling out wide against Liverpool last weekend, the 21 year-old will be keen to get back to goal scoring ways – two goals in six Premier League outings is a rather sedated return compared to Lukaku’s high standards over the past two seasons.

He’ll fancy his chances against the Red Devils too; nine of the last ten Premier League fixtures at Old Trafford have witnessed 2.5 goals or more, and the Belgium international netted a hat-trick against United on the last day of the 2012/13 campaign:

Jones is set to be partnered with Marcos Rojo, in the absence of Chris Smalling and Johnny Evans (injury) and Tyler Blackett (suspension).

The summer signing was at the heart of United’s 5-3 defeat to Leicester City and is still coming to terms with the pace, power and intensity of the Premier League. As well as stopping a battering ram in Lukaku, the England international needs to keep his Argentine colleague organised.

ANGEL DI MARIA VS JAMES MCCARTHY

Angel Di Maria
How to solve a problem like Angel Di Maria?

The former Real Madrid star has been nothing short of sensational since swapping the Bernabeu for Old Trafford in August, running the show from midfield and demonstrating his world-class end product in emphatic style:

Di maria united

This eloquent chip against Leicester City particularly stood out:

Indeed, the Argentina international is yet to go a game for United without contributing to a goal, so if the Toffees are to get anything from their visit to Old Trafford, they’ll have to stop Di Maria or at least slow him down.

That duty could well be passed to James McCarthy – the Ireland international missed Everton’s Europa League tie with Krasnodar yesterday evening with a strained quad, but will be hoping to return against the Red Devils.

In positional terms, he lines up directly against Di Maria – the South American habitually deployed at left-centre-mid and McCarthy and right-centre-mid – and as Everton’s engine room, possesses the athleticism and energy to go toe-to-toe with the United star for much of the match.

Should the Toffees dynamo be ruled out through injury, summer signing Muhamed Besic or former Red Devils youngster Darron Gibson are likely to take his place.

JUAN MATA VS GARETH BARRY

Juan Mata
With Wayne Rooney suspended for this excessive professional foul against West Ham:

…misfit Juan Mata looks set to take over at the tip of Manchester United’s midfield diamond.

The Spain international has struggled to find his place at Old Trafford since leaving Chelsea in January 2014, but let’s not forget what he’s capable of; Mata claimed back-to-back Player of the Year awards for his former employers and despite limited game-time, has already hit the onion-bag twice this season.

Operating as Everton’s deepest lying midfielder, Gareth Barry will have to keep a leash on the 26 year-old playmaker. The former England man struggled against Liverpool last weekend – in fact, he was fortunate not to be sent for an early shower in the opening twenty minutes – so a significantly higher level of performance is required.

Mata’s absolutely lethal from dead ball situations too – take this curler from last season for example:
<br

Fouls will have to be kept down to a minimum, but Everton currently boast one of the cleanest records in the Premier League:

Everton fouls

RADAMEL FALCAO VS PHIL JAGIELKA AND JOHN STONES

Falcao
Despite providing two assists, marquee signing Radamel Falcao is yet to get off the mark in the Premier League.

He’ll fancy his chances of breaking his duck on Sunday however – Everton currently have the worst defensive record in the Premier League, conceding 14 times in six fixtures and recording a solitary clean sheet against West Brom.

Indeed, Chelsea slammed them for six and Crystal Palace bagged three goals with just three shots on target against the Toffees, but the Merseyside derby produced an improved performance as Liverpool were held to a 1-1 draw.

Much of that was centred around John Stones coming back in at centre-half to partner Phil Jagielka, with Sylvain Distin sidelined through injury. The 36 year-old veteran could return to fitness at the weekend but his form has been poor this season and it’s likely Roberto Martinez will stick with the England duo instead.

In Falcao they’ll be up against one of the most lethal strikers in Europe – the former Atletico Madrid star’s career record stands at an incredible 200 goals in 308 appearances. Here’s ten of the Colombian’s most memorable goals:

LEIGHTON BAINES VS RAFAEL

Baines
They say full-backs are now the most important players on the pitch in tactical terms, and Everton’s visit to Manchester United could will epitomise that modern trend.

<br
With Manchester United unlikely to deploy out-and-out wingers, roaming left-back Leighton Baines looks set to directly come up against Red Devils No.2 Rafael for much of the match.

The quality of the England international’s left boot needs no introduction to United – they’ve tried and failed to bring Baines to Old Trafford on uncountable occasions throughout the years.

The 29 year-old is enjoying a rich vein of form this season too, as shown below:

Baines form

Rafael’s in decent nick as well – but he’ll find himself outnumbered at times on Sunday and will have to remain disciplined, whilst balancing his entrenched desire to get forward with defensive obligations.

Unfortunately, disciplined isn’t a word in the feisty Brazilian’s vocabulary – he’s yet to make the referee’s notebook this season but has already picked up two red cards in 102 Premier League appearances.

Likewise to Juan Mata, Leighton Baines’ quality from dead ball situations verges upon world-class, so United’s current average of 12.2 fouls per match will have to come down somewhat. Here’s the Three Lions defender netting a unique free-kick brace against West Ham last season: