In the case of Everton, a strong start to the season had pundits and fans talking about another gatecrashing of the top four places. But after exiting the FA Cup in embarrassing fashion to Wigan last weekend, which eliminated their likeliest hopes for a first trophy in recent years, Everton are now, for the first time this season, below Merseyside rivals Liverpool in the league table.
As for Manchester City, last year’s title winners are still cruising in second place, five points ahead of nearest challenger Tottenham Hotspur with a game in hand. But City are also 12 points behind rivals Manchester United in one of the strangest and least dramatic title races in many a season.
So from any neutral’s perspective, these would otherwise be classed as successful seasons for both clubs. But from their own point of view, perhaps “underachieving” could be considered their most apt description, which makes Saturday’s match an interesting one to watch.
Now here are five individual battles that we’re looking forward to watching at Goodison Park. Enjoy and let us know your best picks.
Continuing with the curious theme: a suddenly first-choice central defender against a suddenly first-choice striker.
Not that either of them lack the quality to be starters—but in the absence of regulars Phil Jagielka and Sergio Aguero respectively, John Heitinga will suddenly be thrust into the limelight against a quite on-fire Carlos Tevez.
Tevez has hit six goals in his past four games in what has become a customary late-season run of fine goalscoring form, while Heitinga has generally had a hit-and-miss career in a sky blue shirt.
Saturday will also see, on opposing teams, two favorites for either full-back position on this season’s Premier League Team of the Year, and likely candidates for Player of the Year.
And Leighton Baines’ direct and attacking style will see him come up against the trusty and influential City right-back, Pablo Zabaleta.
But Zabaleta will want to have a say in the battle between the league’s best full-backs: With two goals and two assists this season, he has been a useful component of the City attack as well, though that pales in comparison to Baines’ five goals and four assists.
In front of the defence, arguably the most impressive midfielders this season will face off last year’s premier midfielder, as Marouane Fellaini and Yaya Toure lock horns on Saturday.
With a team-high 11 league goals in just 23 games, Fellaini is no doubt Everton’s biggest goalscoring threat due to his height, power and improved finishing. He was an indispensable part of Everton’s early-season high-flying form, and plays a key role with his physical style of play in the advanced midfield role.
But Toure is a formidable opponent, one of the best box-to-box midfielders—and indeed one of the best all-round midfielders—in Europe at present, with the power, pace and mobility to charge right through the defence.
And we all know about the ability of both these guys to score important goals.
Less heralded is perhaps Steven Pienaar’s contribution to the Everton cause, and he has been quietly impressive for David Moyes since returning to the Blues on a permanent deal last summer.
On a quite different side of the spectrum, Javi Garcia was as perplexing a summer acquisition for Roberto Mancini as he has been underwhelming in the center of midfield, but a recent tendency to select him from the start pits him against one of the Premier League’s most underrated stars.
How Garcia handles the threat of the quick and tricky Pienaar will be interesting. He’ll likely need the support of the industrious James Milner, who has shown encouraging form of late.
Up front, an even less heralded summer acquisition in Everton’s Kevin Mirallas will likely face off against one of the best transfers this season, City’s precocious Matija Nastasic.
Prior to his injury, Mirallas took his time to settle before showing pace, dribbling and at times finishing from the Blues wing, and he has hit form to become a major threat for David Moyes.
But Matija Nastasic has shown exactly why he is considered to be one of Europe’s finest young defenders with his calm and composed displays alongside Vincent Kompany and more recently Kolo Toure, pushing former Toffee Joleon Lescott out of the starting XI.
It’ll take more than just speed and trickery to beat Nastasic. Mirallas will need to be at the top of his game.
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