Monday 18 December 2017

Brittle Reds lose ground

Dion Fanning

The Manchester United that most people recognise didn't show up at Goodison Park yesterday. This wasn't because Wayne Rooney failed to get off the bus before the game.

All that happened last week will have been absorbed by Alex Ferguson as part of his lifelong lessons in loyalty. But Manchester United weren't built by their manager to concede a two-goal lead in injury-time. The paternalistic hand with which he dealt with Rooney's problems was probably not in evidence in the dressing-room after yesterday's collapse.

The romantic in him might acknowledge a magnificent football match but probably not today. And probably not tomorrow either.

Rooney's absence had nothing to do with the late goals but without him United are always a more fragile force.

After throwing away a lead at Fulham (a game Rooney missed with a virus), United did the same again. It is the opposite of what title-winners are supposed to do and what Manchester United are supposed to do.

United's team selection suggested an 11 had been cobbled together on the way to the ground. Gary Neville started for the first time this season and John O'Shea was moved into midfield.

Everton started with no strikers but they seemed determined to advance as if United wouldn't notice.

For 15 minutes, the visitors couldn't get a look-in as Everton drilled shots at goal. United's midfield needed Scholes to get on the ball because O'Shea, and to a lesser extent, Darren Fletcher couldn't help in that regard.

The home crowd had forgotten the absence of Rooney and the old ground rocked as Everton kept going forward with Tony Hibbert getting space down the right, Leighton Baines down the left and United caving in in between.

Nemanja Vidic remained as captain, despite the selection of Giggs and Scholes, and he gave one of his aggressive displays, blocking everything he could and reminding his team-mates of their responsibilities.

It took 15 minutes for United to leave their half but then they established some authority. O'Shea may not be able to shape a game from midfield but he reacted quickly when the ball bounced loose on the edge of the box and fired a shot against the post.

Baines should have scored when he scuffed a chance on the greasy surface before Tim Howard made two superb saves.

First, he reacted as a Scholes free-kick was deflected away from the direction of his dive and managed to save with his foot. Then it was the turn of the other old-timer. Giggs shot from close range but Howard saved brilliantly.

Everton were in retreat but from a hopeful clearance they took the lead. Patrice Evra tried an overhead kick as a ball dropped over his head. He missed and Mikel Arteta ran clear. Neville elected not to bring him down and Van der Sar's save suggested he was right. Steven Pienaar was lurking and stroked in the rebound.

This was what they wanted and the stands shook in celebration. United seemed vulnerable but when Cahill conceded a free-kick three minutes later, Everton were sluggish as United moved the ball forward quickly.

Scholes took it to Giggs who spread it out to Nani on the right. Fletcher did what he does and attacked the near post. Nani found him and United had equalised.

There would have been a time when the selection of Dimitar Berbatov would have brought cries that United had started with no strikers as well. Yesterday Berbatov was superb. He remains a languid presence on the field but one volley in the first half from a Giggs cross was wonderful and there was more to come.

By the time it did, United had the lead. Two minutes into the second half, Everton were losing heart. A United corner was cleared to Nani who had too much time and delivered a cross for Vidic to head in.

Scholes became the game's dominant figure, knocking the ball around. United targeted Sylvain Distin as they waited to break. Howard kept the lead down when he saved from Nani after one swift United break.

But United's third was a thing of beauty. Scholes put a ball over Distin's head and onto Berbatov's foot with perfect judgement. Berbatov was clear. He took a touch and then knocked the ball past Howard with the outside of his right foot.

Moyes sent on Seamus Coleman and Yakubu but for a long time it made no difference. United were strolling. Baines hit the side-netting with a free-kick but Everton seemed to have lost hope.

Cahill had clashed with Vidic when he caught the Serbian with an elbow but there was more to come. Unsurprisingly, he won a header when Baines crossed and Everton had respectability in injury-time. Immediately, and maybe to their own great surprise, they had more. Baines was released down the left. Cahill got in between several United players to head back towards Arteta. He was the player to keep the ball down and he did, driving the ball off Scholes into the net.

United were reeling again and Everton broke one last time with intent. The chance was missed but the final whistle had already gone, causing Moyes to stride angrily onto the pitch, looking for answers. He wasn't the only one. Everything was back on the agenda.

Sunday Independent

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