MANCHESTER UNITED 4 (Rooney 41, 69, Welbeck 57, Nani 60) – EVERTON 4 (Jelavic 33, 83, Fellaini 67, Pienaar 85).
Everton produced a superb performance, twice coming back from two-goal deficits, to deny Manchester United victory at Old Trafford and blow the title-race wide open. After the disappointment of the FA Cup semi-final defeat both players and management came bouncing back with a display of disciplined passing, incisive attacking football and thoughtful tactics which stunned the home crowd, left Sir Alex fuming and will have baffled the global audience of United ‘supporters’ watching on TV.
With Leighton Baines out with a hamstring injury Sylvain Distin was asked to play at left-back and Phil Neville partnered Darron Gibson in central-midfield. Marouane Fellaini was pushed further forward to work with Pienaar and Osman in a 4-2-3-1 formation. The big-haired Belgian revelled in this more attacking role with his strength in the air, control off his chest and on the ground unsettling Ferdinand and Evans and causing constant problems.
Nikica Jelavic is a lethal finisher but had not scored with his head since his arrival from Glasgow. He put this right on thirty-three minutes when he met a deep cross from Tony Hibbert at the far post and looped a sumptuous header over De Gea into the far side of the goal. So now we know; not only can he can score left and right footed, he is also an adroit and deadly header of the ball. £5m for this player is surely the best piece of business ever concluded by the management triumvirate of Moyes, Kenwright and Elstone.
United hauled themselves back into the game after forty-one minutes when Wayne Rooney headed an Evra cross past Tim Howard from close range. The home team had been slow to get going but for the final ten minutes of the first-half started to move through the gears and with Everton giving a good account of themselves, more goals seemed certain. And they came in a rush around the hour mark with Welbeck and Nani each finishing beautifully in the space of three minutes to seemingly put United in control. However Fellaini kept the Blues in the game when he met another Hibbert cross with a superb first-time volley but saw it cancelled out almost immediately by Rooney who restored the home side’s two-goal cushion with another quality finish.
At this point David Moyes made what, we are sure to some, was a controversial substitution when he withdrew Leon Osman and brought on James McFadden. However the move worked well with the Scot, though lacking in pace, holding the ball comfortably and distributing thoughtfully. United still looked vulnerable every time the Toffees came forward – which was often – and Jelavic put Everton back in the game on eighty-three minutes when he latched on to a poor header from Evans and half-volleyed home from about twelve yards. On the touch-line Sir Alex was apoplectic and David Moyes animated while the Old Trafford faithful appeared subdued and certainly did not get behind their team as one might have expected.
Everton completed their comeback on eighty-five minutes when Steven Pienaar finished a superb move which cut Manchester United to shreds. The South African played a short pass to Phil Neville and ran infield, at which point Neville played the ball into Fellaini on the left of the area. He ignored Evans, who wasn’t tight enough, and turned to play a square pass across goal for Pienaar to slide it first time under De Gea from eight yards. Four-four with five minutes to go and United came surging forward, but could not create any clear-cut chances as Everton held firm. Inexplicably referee Mike Jones found five minutes of added time; we awaited the arrival of substitute Ashley Young, his dive and the inevitable penalty award, but mysteriously they never came. What did come was a superb save by Tim Howard who dived high to his right to tip over a goal-bound Rio Ferdinand pile-driver from the edge of the area. Oh and that five minutes of added time; Mike Jones added a further 40 seconds to it, but still failed to elicit a United winner.
Following this memorable performance there can be only one question; where was this Everton last Saturday?
MANCHESTER UNITED: (4-4-2) De Gea; Da Silva, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra(C); Valencia (Hernadnez 89), Carrick, Scholes (Jones 86), Nani; Rooney, Welbeck
Unused subs: Amos, Giggs, Smalling, Park, Young
EVERTON: (4-2-3-1) Howard; Hibbert, Jagielka, Heitinga, Distin (Cahill 83); Neville(C), Gibson; Osman (McFadden 64), Fellaini, Pienaar; Jelavic
Unused subs: Mucha, Stracqualursi, Gueye, Barkley, Anichebe
Bookings: Distin, Neville
Referee: Mike Jones
Premier League: Sunday 1 March (14:05), Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium
Europa League: Round of 16; Thursday 12 March, Dynamo Kiev at Goodison