By Jamie Dunn
Manchester United have never been a side to shirk a challenge but Sir Alex Ferguson must have welcomed the news that Marouane Fellaini could be an injury concern for Everton going into Sunday's game.
The Toffees are far from a one-man team, as evidenced by the brilliance of Leighton Baines, his work in tandem with the recharged Steven Pienaar and the consistently impressive Leon Osman.
But Fellaini, who is expected to play despite missing Belgium's midweek friendly with bruising on his hip, is compiling something of a highlight reel against the Premier League leaders.
After all, it was Fellaini who proved to be the scourge of Old Trafford in April 2012, in a 4-4 draw that would eventually have a huge say in the outcome of last season's Premier League title race.
The Belgian's combination with the excellent Pienaar and Osman that day, occupying a space largely to the left of central midfield, was potent from the start, and a quick passing move involving the trio allowed Tony Hibbert space on the right to cross for Nikica Jelavic to open the scoring.
FELLAINI FOILS MAN UTD
OLD TRAFFORD (APRIL 22, 2012)
PASS COMPLETION %
AERIAL DUELS WON
GOODISON PARK (AUGUST 20, 2012)
PASS COMPLETION %
AERIAL DUELS WON
stats from FourFourTwo Stats Zone
The home side stirred, as they so often do, and extended their lead once more through Rooney but Fellaini caused panic in the opposition penalty area as Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand challenged him in the air, conspiring only to head into the path of Jelavic, who pulled a goal back.
And with five minutes to play, Pienaar scored the shock equaliser after yet more good work from Fellaini, who collected the ball in the box, cleverly turned away from Evans and laid off into the path of the South African, who smashed the ball beyond David de Gea. The comeback was complete and the hosts would go on to lose eight days later, eventually relinquishing the title to Manchester City.
With that deflating draw still prominent in the minds of the Old Trafford faithful, Fellaini was terrorising United again at Goodison Park last August in a season opener for both sides. This time, in the absence of the injured Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick was deployed as a centre-back and the emergency defender was given a torrid time by the towering midfielder.
Despite the presence of Nemanja Vidic, Fellaini brutalised everyone in his path, muscling past Antonio Valencia and shrugging off Carrick before striking the post early on, also beating the England man in the air on the first of a handful of occasions to play in Osman, who was denied by De Gea.
Osman rattled the bar from another Fellaini knockdown in the second half before Everton's No.25 rose above Carrick to head the only goal of the game, leaving the makeshift stopper to cut a forlorn figure on the floor in front of him, as the Toffees stunned their illustrious opponents again.
And it was not the first time that the Belgian had been a thorn Sir Alex's side, either. Fellaini scored only his second-ever goal in English football against United in October 2008, heading past Edwin van der Sar, having bothered the visitors' back line in an aerial duel for the duration of that Saturday afternoon as Everton stole away with a point in a 1-1 draw.
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Swansea City travelled to Goodison Park in January and left with a point and a clean sheet, thanks in no small part to the work of central defensive pairing Chico and Ashley Williams. The pair combined to not only sit deep and stand up to the aerial onslaught of the Belgian but also to challenge early and high up the pitch where necessary.
Stoke similarly stifled Fellaini in a 1-1 draw at the Britannia Stadium, with the 25-year-old creating no chances and failing to muster a single shot on goal, while winning just two of his battles in the air. So frustrated was the Belgian in his tussle with Ryan Shawcross & Co. that he was lucky not to be sent off, having thrown a blatant punch at the centre-back.
If United are to nullify the threat of Fellaini, the centre-back pairing - likely to feature two of Vidic, Ferdinand and Evans - should replicate elements of the performances of Swansea and Stoke.
Marouane Fellaini is 18/1 with Bet365 to score the first goal in an Everton win against Manchester United
The Old Trafford side would also benefit from a deep-lying midfield spoiler to prevent the build-up play of Pienaar, Osman and Fellaini but are short in that department in the continued absence of Darren Fletcher, as was proved by the soft nature of the three goals conceded in the thrilling Boxing Day win over Newcastle.
An alternative solution, dropping the prolific Rooney into midfield and sitting Carrick in front of the back four is an option, while the right-back - Antonio Valencia or Rafael - must not be drawn in by Pienaar, with the threat of a Baines delivery from any area a constant.
Fortunately for the hosts, they look set to go into Sunday's clash with a fully fit Vidic and a rejuvenated Ferdinand.
And if Fellaini plays, both will need to be at their very best, or the title race could be very much alive once again.
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