Almost every season while at Everton, a top-four finish to earn a Champions League spot was little more than a pipe dream for David Moyes.
His former Merseyside charges could level the death knell to those hopes in his first season at storied Manchester United and help their cause to claim one of those spots Sunday when the Toffees look to play the role of ungracious hosts in Moyes' long-awaited return to Goodison Park.
Though Moyes had eight top-seven finishes in his 11 seasons at Everton, his lone appearance in Champions League play was a qualifying loss to Spanish side Villarreal in 2005-06. Additionally, the closest Moyes ever came to lifting a trophy was the 2009 FA Cup final loss to Chelsea.
Though his move to the Theatre of Dreams came with a Champions League spot inherited from predecessor Sir Alex Ferguson for United's Premier League-winning campaign last season, Moyes' side were eliminated by Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals as part of his underwhelming first season at Old Trafford. United are all but mathematically eliminated from returning for 2014-15, in large part due to a dismal 1-3-7 record against the six teams above them in the table.
"That's how it looks," Moyes told the team's official website after United's Champions League exit. "But I believe it's not far away. Hopefully it will only be one year where we have to rebuild."
United (17-6-10) are seventh in what has already been assured their worst season in the Premier League, one that also likely will end their 18-year run of Champions League appearances. Additionally, United are three points behind Tottenham for sixth and the final Europa League spot, but they could still qualify in seventh if Arsenal win the FA Cup.
While Moyes has fond memories of his tenure at Everton, the Scot insists he shouldn't be the focal point of Sunday's crunch match.
"The game is not about me, it's about Everton and Manchester United," Moyes said. "I was proud to be manager of Everton at that time but my job now is to make sure I get a result for United.
"The Everton fans were always terrific in my time there - very supportive and always right behind the team. We go there with a great away record and go there trying to keep that going. Roberto Martinez has done a brilliant job this year. He's got them playing well and in a good healthy league position."
If there is one place Moyes has tuned out the noise of failed expectations, it has been on the road. United have won four straight on the bounce outside Old Trafford, claimed a league-high 33 points and carry a 488-minute road shutout streak in league play after a 4-0 thrashing of Newcastle United at St James' Park on April 5 as Juan Mata scored two goals and assisted on a third.
The Toffees (19-9-6) are one point behind Arsenal for the fourth and final Champions League spot with four matches remaining but have been stewing since Wednesday following their stunning 3-2 home loss to relegation-threatened Crystal Palace that prevented them from overtaking the Gunners. Steven Naismith and Kevin Mirallas scored for Everton, and Moyes' successor Martinez knows everything is at stake for his side in this highly-charged atmosphere.
"Obviously it's glamorous to see the champions at Goodison and it's great to welcome the figures that we're going to welcome...but the three points in this period for us as a football club are more important than any aspect you can highlight in the fixture," he said. "I think the biggest compliment we can pay to ourselves is that the three points at this moment are more important than all the aspects you can mention."
Though United are still without Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney is expected to play and Marouane Fellaini has sufficiently recovered from injury to be available. Everton midfielder James McCarthy could start after appearing as a substitute in Wednesday's loss.
Everton are seeking their first double over United after a 1-0 victory at Old Trafford in the reverse fixture on Dec. 4 courtesy of Bryan Oviedo's 86th-minute goal.
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