After fears about the fitness of Tim Cahill and Marouane Fellaini ahead of this game, and the final episode of the Merseyside cup-tie still to come on Wednesday, the goods news for the Blues was that both these key players start at Old Trafford, Anichebe once again watching from the bench.
Fellaini committed two rather silly fouls inside the first 5 minutes, the first a clear tackle from behind in a dangerous spot, Ronaldo thankfully firing into the solid Everton wall, the second on a great cross in from Baines when he unceremoniously shoved Vidic out of the way, as Everton otherwise stood up well to the early Manc pressure. Howard looked a little uncertain on one cross in from Park, his late touch
Everton were carrying on from the Arsenal game, playing sensible possession football without taking too many chances when they could. But a great ball in from Ronaldo caused panic and United should really have scored when the ball came to Tevez but his close-range shot careened away miraculously off Howard's outstretched boot.
Vidic came off worst in a clash of heads with Marou, whose 11th yellow card looked to be only a question of time for Ref Halsey. Interestingly, United were standing off their counterparts a little, giving Everton rare time and space to play the ball — something it seems the top teams do almost to make their games more pleasing to watch. Everton relished the openness, taking the game to United and creating some action in the United area, only for Van de Saar to excel in his dominant control of their goal area.
Everton were getting a number of marginal decisions called in their favour, which of itself was very encouraging at Old Trafford, but the resolute defence was living on a knife-edge as the sheer speed and audacity of the United strikeforce looked to bewilder them. Ronaldo looked to have scored but his rolled shot hit the post and bounced across the goal. Then Ronaldo tried a top-corner shot that Howard was more than equal to. And off the corner, Howard came off his line smartly to snuff out the danger.
Everton were showing no fear, with some great plays down the left where Pienaar and Baines were combining well. Meanwhile, the defensive perfection continued with a superb tackle by Jagielka on Tevez. From that play, an incredible sequence of close passing saw the ball played into the United penalty area through Fellaini's legs when he was in a perfect position for a shot on goal — except that he was facing the wrong way!
Baines had at least half-a-dozen chances in the first half to put in dangerous crosses but none were of the quality he created for Cahill's superb header against Arsenal. One passage of play, though, suggested a lack of adventure when Pienaar had a glorious chance to run at United or at least make a decent forward pass with the Red Horde retreating in panic on an Everton break; instead, he chose a weak back-pass that then went right back to Howard, who hoofed it upfield and of courses turned over possession to United in midfield. Criminal.
Tevez won a clever free-kick wide right that Ronaldo delivered in superbly but there were only four blue heads on the end of it. However, the cruelest blow came just before half-time when Arteta (who had been very quiet again in a big game...) was very unlucky to accidentally trip Carrick as he ran into the area and Halsey called it a penalty that Ronaldo blasted home. It was a gut-wrenching after such a good first half from Everton, who had matched United in every area of the field except for the final ball into the danger area. Carrick had a popshot at Howard before the whistle blew.
After the break, Arteta got a chance on a free-kick won by Pienaar but he sliced it horrifically wide of the goal. Carrick looked to win another penalty when Lescott crashed into him but incredibly no penalty. Perhaps Halsey thought Carrick played for it somewhat! Pienaar then had a shot he delivered straight at Van de Sar. Cahill had a long-distance pop that went wide as the open game continued to feature attractive play from both sides. Tevez blasted over when well positioned as Everton endeavoured to play their part.
Garry Neville went off for Wes Brown on 55 mins, who fouled Pienaar, giving Arteta another albeit more distant opportunity that he drove low but within Van de Sar's grasp. At least it was on target this time! Halsey continued to give Pienaar the benefit of the doubt in the challenge but Everton were not making enough of the opportunities. The pace flagged somewhat on the hour mark, with United perhaps content to sit on their lead and make it a 12th consecutive clean sheet, David Moyes eventually deciding that Anichebe should come on for Fellaini, who was probably feeling that shin problem.
Pienaar dived in strongly on Carrick, giving Tevez a chance but it careened up off the wall and Howard had to back-pedal to push it away from under the bar. At the other end, a nice sequence set up Pienaar but his shot was awful.
United appeared to have successfully taken the zing out of the game, Everton getting far forward with increasing rarity in the second half. Once chance came with a high free-kick that Cahill tried to bicycle kick but was sandwiched out of it, Lescott thatn lunging for it while Ferdinand leaned on him heavily... but not penalty despite plenty of shouts. The ball dropped nicely for Arteta but his fierce shot was blocked by Carrick, whilel Howard was alert to block PArk after he had beaten Hibbert for once on the by-line.
With time running out, Everton tried desperately to break with speed on the turnover, but it's something they have rarely attempted to do in the Moyes era, showing their lack of experience or guile executing such a risky play that no doubt does not feature in Moyes's defense-dominated playbook. Anichebe was lucky his petulant push on Brown near the end did not incur Halsey's wrath, with such a promising and adventurous display by the Blues finally endeing in a whimper, Van de Sar seriously untested by Everton's non-existent strikeforce.
Everton's first loss in 10 games, with Villa and Arsenal kindly both drawing 0-0 at home... Another in the long list of big games where Arteta really needed to step up and show what he can do... but he didn't. Ah well. Another opportunity lost..
Given the fact that the cupboard is bare at Goodison Park and that the chances of even a loan signing arriving before Monday's transfer deadline have all but evaporated, it's probably fair to say that Robin van Persie's injury-time equaliser on Wednesday effectively ended Everton's interest in the chase for a Champions League spot this season.
Aston Villa have assumed Everton's mantle of being able to grind out narrow win after narrow win and that knack, combined with what must have been a heavy clubbing by the lucky stick a few weeks back, means that they will be the team most likely to upset the Sky Four apple cart come May.
Indeed, Arsenal showed against the Blues in midweek why they might be the team that loses out to Martin O'Neill's Villa Park revolution but the Gunners have the resources to make it a close-run thing and that means that even fifth place could be a bridge too far for Everton.
I see that as a realistic rather than a pessimistic prognosis. David Moyes has been eking the maximum out of his squad in recent weeks, asking the same core group of players to give 100% week in, week out in order to compensate for a chronic lack of strikers. it's questionable how long that can go on.
The run of fixtures in which they're currently embroiled — one that would be a nightmare for most teams but it has to be said that the Blues have acquitted themselves brilliantly — has been particularly intense and the knocks and strains are starting to take their toll to some very important players.
Mikel Arteta missed the FA Cup tie at Liverpool with a rib injury and clearly hadn't fully recovered by the time the Arsenal game came around, and now both Tim Cahill and Marouane Fellaini are doubts for what is, on paper, the Blues' toughest test of the season — a trip to Old Trafford to face a Manchester United side in title-winning form.
Moyes doesn't appear willing to risk either player, though, and said, "It may well be time to bring in some youngsters... I wouldn’t risk anybody on Saturday, but not because of the Liverpool game. I have to be sure the players are right."
Even with Cahill in the starting line-up, this weekend's game promises to be another backs-to-the-wall effort with the bulk of the onus falling onto the shoulders of the defence to keep United at bay. If Cahill, unquestionably the team's biggest goal threat and now Everton's top scorer, is ruled out, it's hard to see where a goal might even come from and there's a danger that it beomes all about playing for the draw.
While David Moyes's side are eking out results in the face of adversity, there's a certain thrill and intrigue about watching the Blues; can they stay unbeaten through this run of five consecutive matches against "big four" opposition and dump Liverpool out of the FA Cup into the bargain despite being so severely depleted.
That excitement may rapidly fall away, however, when the transfer window closes, when the opportunity to sign an emergency striker is gone, when and if key injuries start to chip away the small core of senior players at the manager's disposal, and the results start going against them. At some point cheering on the plucky, injury-stricken nearly-men becomes just plain frustrating and questioning eyes start to turn towards the Directors' Box.
For now, though, it's one game at a time and as daunting a fixture as Manchester United away is, Everton are in fine form right now at the back and will fancy themselves to stymie the Red Devils. Some fear that that would give a leg up to Liverpool but somehow I think Sir Alex's side will have enough to outpace Rafael Benitez's band of whingers in the final reckoning even if the Blues were to spring a surprise and win this weekend.
Moyes would, no doubt, love to field the same team that started against Arsenal but severe bruising to Cahill's foot and a knock to Fellaini's shin might put paid to that. If either one is ruled out, Victor Anichebe is almost certain to be the man to come in; indeed, if neither make it, Big Vic will still play but Moyes has a decision to make in midfield. Segundo Castillo looked out of place in the heat of the derby and Dan Gosling probably lacks the experience to be thrown into such a big game.
That might leave room for Jack Rodwell who is still very raw but has at least benefited from some playing time in the senior side earlier in the season. His defensive bent would allow he and Phil Neville to play the role of midfield enforcers and give Mikel Arteta a little more license to roam forward.
Whatever happens with his injury worries, Moyes's choices are few and even with United's own selection issues — thankfully, Wayne Rooney will miss out — it's going to require another Herculean effort on the part of the back line to get anything out of this game.
May appear here later
May appear here later
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|MAN UNITED (4-4-2)|
|Van der Sar|
|G Neville (c) (56' Brown)|
|Fletcher (75' Giggs)|
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|P Neville (c)|
|Fellaini (68' Anichebe)|
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