Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland quartet face busy night in Premier League

By Steven Beacom

As a great Northern Ireland striker retires, the focus will be on four of our defenders tonight in a crucial evening of Premier League football

Jonny Evans, Manchester United v Everton

Jonny Evans has become the go to man for David Moyes in recent weeks.

It is a far cry from the start of the season when the Northern Ireland defender wasn't getting a kick with the new boss preferring the Nemanja Vidic/Rio Ferdinand partnership.

There were suggestions in some quarters that to play the first team football he craved Evans would have to consider his Old Trafford future.

Such thoughts never entered his mind. The 25-year-old is a confident character and felt sure that once he got his chance he'd show Moyes that he was worth his place in the side.

That's how it has turned out. Now Moyes clearly sees Evans in his short and long term plans, having given him the nod in recent important matches such as away to Bayer Leverkusen and Tottenham.

Tonight Moyes is up against his old club Everton for the first time since leaving Goodison Park in the summer and taking over from Sir Alex Ferguson.

There will be an edge to the match, not least because Everton, playing fantastic attacking football under Roberto Martinez, genuinely feel they can win.

A major reason for that is the brilliant Romelu Lukaku, on loan from Chelsea.

In recent weeks defenders have been unable to handle the Belgian striker. Unless Moyes springs a surprise and reverts to Vidic and Ferdinand, Evans will be the man asked to control Everton's top gun.

It should be a fascinating contest. Lukaku has pace and power which can hurt United and Evans will have to be at his best to stop him.

If he wins his personal battle, it will go a long way to helping the Red Devils earn the victory they so desperately need to stay in touch in the title race.

Gareth McAuley, West brom v Man City

Former Coleraine ace Gareth McAuley has been one of the most consistent performers in the Premier League for the past 18 months.

Last season, he swept the board at West Brom's Player of the Year awards ceremonies and he has maintained his form in the current campaign, even if his team-mates have not played to the same levels as the year before.

Tonight he faces one of his sternest tests since becoming a top flight footballer in England.

He and the Baggies are up against the free scoring machine that is Manchester City.

In 13 Premier League games this season, City have hit 37 goals, easily the most in the division and 10 more than league leaders Arsenal.

In the last six games in all competitions, Manuel Pellegrini's side have smacked in 25 goals with Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo in blistering form. Even Samir Nasri has joined in which shows how many opportunities the team are creating.

McAuley and his defensive partner Jonas Olsson have a mighty task on their hands.

City may have lost to Cardiff, Aston Villa and Sunderland on the road earlier in the campaign, but that was then... this is now, and City are flying. If McAuley can hold them at bay, it'll be one of his finest achievements since swapping part-time football for the full-time game.

Alex Bruce, Arsenal v Hull City

Alex Bruce had the game of his life on Sunday for Hull in their historic 3-1 victory over Liverpool.

Making only his second Premier League start this season, Bruce was under scrutiny, going toe-to-toe with the outstanding Luis Suarez.

Being the son of Hull boss Steve didn't help either.

Bruce junior has taken some unfounded accusations of favouritism towards him on the chin – surely if that were the case he'd be playing every week – and simply got on with his job at Hull.

And what a great job it was at the weekend.

Liverpool were poor, but Suarez remained a constant threat which Bruce dealt with capably and without fuss.

Hull's win was hugely impressive, but Bruce's ability to prevent the dangerous Uruguayan from having a meaningful shot on goal was even more so.

Fate should have decreed he would face a less challenging battle next time out.

Not a bit of it.

Tonight Bruce, who switched allegiance from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland and was allowed to do so because he had only played friendlies for the former, faces Arsenal at the Emirates.

He could return to the bench, though given his performance on Sunday and with Curtis Davies out suspended, he deserves to play again.

In all probability however, like almost every other side this season, Bruce and his team-mates will get the runaround. Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud look unstoppable.

Aaron Hughes, Fulham v Tottenham Hotspur

The heat is on Spurs boss Andre Villas-Boas for tonight's game, but there will also be pressure on the Fulham players, including Aaron Hughes to deliver with Martin Jol sacked and Rene Meulensteen taking over.

The new boss at Craven Cottage has declared his intent to recruit in January and he won't be afraid to wield the axe, even on senior stars if he feels they aren't up to scratch.

With 34-year-old Hughes no longer a first team certainty at Fulham, the next few weeks could be a crucial time for him and his Premier League career.

In and out of the side this season he played in the latter weeks of Jol's reign, but could not inspire an upturn in fortunes.

Only Sunderland and Palace have scored less than Tottenham in the Premier League to date this season, so on the face of it Fulham are in with a chance tonight.

The fear for them is that Spurs must come good soon and give somebody a good old-fashioned hammering.

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