The unheralded midfield duo who could decide Everton's clash with Newcastle
Both of these mid-table clubs - staggering towards Premier League survival - have been burdened by a creative drought in recent weeks; Newcastle have scored just once in their last three outings, while Everton have failed to find the net in five of their last seven league matches.
And although any chance of entertainment at Goodison Park rests upon the two creative individuals returning from injury, their respective influence on the tie is largely dependent upon which central midfielder – Darron Gibson or Mehdi Abeid – can dominate the midfield battleground.
In times of low confidence and rigidly unimaginative football, unexpected moments of flair become of heightened significance. Leighton Baines' crossing ability (his 8 assists this season have all come from crosses) could break the deadlock, while Remy Cabella's dribbling (2 per match) and intelligent passing (1.5 key passes per match) will be a key aspect of Newcastle's width-based counter-attacking strategy.
Both players are menacing in the final third; operating on the same flank, it will be interesting to see who tracks the other more effectively, and who is caught too high up the field.
However, the ways in which these two players receive the ball will be very different. Everton will govern the majority of possession (they average 55.5%, and held 52% against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium recently) while Newcastle will settle for counter-attacks down both flanks. As a consequence, Cabella's influence depends on Abeid's break-up play, and Baines' on Gibson's distribution.
Abeid will need to keep his good run of form going, after impressive defensive work in games against Aston Villa and Manchester United. In Cheick Tiote's continued absence through injury, the Algerian's tackling and quick passing to initiate the counter-attack will be vital for the Magpies.
Note how often Abeid passes the ball out wide after breaking up play.
Gibson's reintroduction to the team has been a revelation for Roberto Martinez. In the 2-2 draw with Leicester, his long passes over the top of the opposition defence created numerous chances for Romelu Lukaku. The Irishman followed this with a dominant midfield display against Stoke.
His average of 88.4 passes per 90 minutes is bettered only by Yaya Toure, and significantly higher than Everton's next best passer, with Gareth Barry averaging 67.
Notice how often Gibson plays long balls to the flanks. Now he will be able to feed these passes into Baines.
Baines or Cabella will likely hog the headlines on Sunday, but the player who comes out on top will almost certainly have relied upon their team's key midfielder orchestrating their brand of football.
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