Everton 0 - 3 Manchester United
With the possibility of drawing level with today's opponents in the upper echelons of the Premier League, Ross Barkley in the news for his ever-improving form for club and country, and John Stones and Seamus Coleman returning to the starting XI, there was cautious optimism ahead of this game that Everton's decent start to the season would continue with another morale-boosting win over Manchester United.
It was an afternoon that started with bad news, however, the game itself rendered trivial in many respects next to the loss of a club legend, but Howard Kendall would, no doubt, have wanted the day to belong to the game he loved and represented so impressively as a player and manager.
As Roberto Martinez remarked after the game, “It would have been nice to turn it into a day of celebration," but Everton came up against a team in a decidedly unsentimental mood. Still smarting from his team's humbling at The Emirates a fortnight ago and with his team's 3-0 drubbing in this game last season probably still gnawing at him, Louis van Gaal came to Merseyside with redemption and retribution on his mind. At least that's the way it seemed from the vigour with which they out-played and shut-down their hosts.
Having seen their side despatch United back along the M62 with defeats on each of their last three visits to Goodison Park, and then witnessed Arsenal put United to the sword with devastating effectiveness, Evertonians were hopeful and expectant of another positive result against the Red Devils; instead, they were given a harsh reminder of how things used to be in this fixture under Sir Alex Ferguson when Everton were were either hopelessly out-matched or paralysed by their "big four" inferiority complex.
Not that fear played much of a role in Everton's defeat today – this was simply the case of superior quality and managerial organisation coming together in the way they should after hundreds of millions of pounds invested in new players by an experienced, arguably world-class manager. United were unrecognisable from the directionless and toothless shambles that showed up in April and in David Moyes's only visit to Goodison as the opposition manager the season before.
Where on those occasions, the Blues were afforded the time and space with which to engineer United's destruction, today their opponents appeared to be under instruction to deny Everton any of either. Ross Barkley, Romelu Lukaku and Steven Naismith routinely found themselves smothered as Van Gaal's men collapsed the space around them as soon as they got the ball. With the Blues regularly electing to hit direct balls to Lukaku, red jerseys would latch onto the second ball and then pivot quickly through midfield into attack with quick, accurate passing.
The net result was a contest that made Everton look slow, ineffective and wasteful with the ball. They visibly lacked the kind of quality at Van Gaal's disposal but much credit should go to manner in which the visitors set about their task – they were simply the better side throughout and were worthy winners, albeit not perhaps by such a wide margin.
The pattern of the match was established early. United began with an intensity and efficiency that Everton struggled to match. Where the Blues looked to go long and eschew much of the "joined-up stuff" that has characterised so much of Martinezs's reign, the visitors opted instead for swift passing through the middle and, when they didn't have the ball, they did their best to nullify any attempt by Everton's forward three to work their way past Chris Smalling and Phil Jones with passing interchanges in the final third.
The latter stategy would prove largely successful, although Lukaku almost bustled his way onto Naismith's throughball early on but he just couldn't nip it past David de Gea who had come off his line to close the chance down, while at the other end Wayne Rooney's first sight of goal ended with a waywardly speculative effort from 25 yards.
United made the all-important breakthrough in the 18th minute, however, after Tim Howard had pushed Ander Herrera's decent shot over his crossbar and referee Jonathan Moss put his inevtiable stamp of incompetence on the game. Rooney visibly impeded Naismith as he jumped to head clear following the corner but the official chose not to blow for the infringement allowing play to go on and Morgan Schneiderlin to benefit from poor defending to slot home unmarked at the far post.
Four minutes later, Everton had the stuffing knocked out of them by a second goal. Seamus Coleman, returning to the side after a month out with a hamstring injury, clattered through Anthony Martial but the referee correctly played the advantage to allow Marcos Rojo to overlap into the space behind the Blues' fullback and sweep a cross onto the head of Herrera. The Spaniard had run into the space between Phil Jagielka and Brendan Galloway allowing him the freedom to nod past the stranded Howard and double the lead.
Reeling, Everton struggled to respond and they almost went into half time 3-0 down when Rooney sprung the offside trap and cut the ball back invitingly for Martial but rather than nestle int the gaping net, his shot took a heavy deflection and rolled into the grateful arms of Howard.
With his side having troubled De Gea just once in the first period when Barkley forced prompted him into a one-handed save with a whipped shot from the angle, Martinez made his first change of the game at half-time, withdrawing the willing but ineffective Naismith with Arouna Kone. Nothing had come off for the Scot in the first 45 minutes and Kone would bring a modicum of better ball retention to the forward line even if he was unable to spark the revival for which Goodison was desperate.
The Blues were better coming out of the interval and a Barkley free kick almost ended with a chance for Lukaku at the far post but he appeared not to have anticipated the ball bypassing all the shirts in front of him and he could only prod the ball behind. Then, Barkley himself had a great chance from a similar position after Aaron Lennon, energetic and industrious as ever, robbed an opponent of the ball, Kone's shot was blocked and Coleman clipped in an inviting cross. Unfortunately, Barkley wanted too much time for the ball to arrive and Smalling was able to muscle in front of him and deny him a goal.
If there was a potential pivot in the game that might have turned things in Everton's favour it came ten minutes into the second half hour mark amid a spell of mounting pressure from the home side that represented their best period of the game. Barkley's slide-rule pass played Lennon in down the right channel and his equally pin-point centre to Lukaku ended with the Belgian placing a side-foot shot aimed for the bottom corner but De Gea saved superbly with an out-stretched leg. And the Spanish 'keeper was there again a few minutes later to beat away Barkley's awkwardly-bouncing free kick.
Any momentum the Blues were building towards an unlikely rescue act on the scale of the one at West Brom last month was killed, however, by a rare moment of calamity by Jagielka on the 62nd minute. His inexpicably poor pass straight to a red shirt gifted possession to United in the centre-circle and two passes later, Rooney had been released into a one-on-one confrontation with Howard. In typical fashion, the American went to ground too quickly and the former Everton forward fired it over his leg to put the game well out of reach.
Howard redeemed himself somewhat by denying Rooney a similar goal seven minutes later after Jagielka had given him a five-yard head-start at the half-way line and he romped away towards the Park End goal, getting enough on the England striker's shot to prevent it from slipping underneath him and adding further insult to the scoreline.
Preferring to retain his two defensive midfielders, perhaps to avoid further embarrassment at the back, Martinez substituted the rather unfortunate Lennon in favour of Gerard Deulofeu but the evident gulf in class between the two sides and United's refusal to budge made it largely impotent gesture. A stoppage time free kick by Barkley that brushed the roof of the net was as close as the beaten Blues would come to a consolation.
Talk of United being viable title contenders may have seemed premature after their defeat at Arsenal but they bore the look of potential Champions on this evidence. And while Evertonian eyes will naturally focus on what this result means in terms of a reality check on the Blues' resurgence as a force among the Premier League's top five or six teams, the level of performance put in by Van Gaal's men went a long way to influencing Everton's own dismal showing.
Nevertheless, the concerns voiced by many fans over the lack of genuine match-winning and game-infuencing quality in Everton's ranks – an issue that dominated the summer transfer window – will return to the fore once more. The result was a harsh one on Lukaku who did almost everything he could to drag the Blues back into the game but Naismith's struggles, the continued absence of Kevin Mirallas and a general lack of cohesion in the team's play will lead to plenty of introspection and, perhaps, some realigned expectations of what is possible this season.