This really was tantalisingly close to what would have been a hugely important win. Having clung to a 1-0 lead handed to them by Phil Jagielka’s first goal since May 2015, Everton were within touching distance of a second win at Old Trafford in a little over three years. Unfortunately, the time added on by abysmal referee Neil Swarbrick proved to be a bridge too far for the Blues and Ashley Williams’s goal-denying handball gifted the equaliser to Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Manchester United will feel as though they got their just desserts for their ceaseless pressure during the closing stages, a period when they peppered the visitors’ area with a succession of long balls. It was a strategy devoid of subtlety — more bet365 Stadium fare than “Theatre of Dreams” — but with the veteran Swede and Maroune Fellaini in their ranks and a host of red-shirted players looking to pick up the second ball, it ultimately proved successful.
Yet Everton, who were full value for the slender lead they took into half-time, could well have won this game with a bit more composure on the counter-attack, particularly late in the second half when United were pouring forward and their defence was one well-placed pass away from being torn open for a decisive second goal.
That they didn’t was partly due to Romelu Lukaku’s single-mindedness (some might say greed) and partly due to more mis-steps by Ronald Koeman who arguably got the starting XI spot on but erred badly in electing to withdraw Kevin Mirallas as early as he did (the player was not happy at all with the decision) and later throwing Dominic Calvert-Lewin on up front when the pace and directness of either Enner Valencia of Ademola Lookman would surely have been a better option.
Lacking natural speed or trickery — and, it seemed, any studs on his boots! — Calvert-Lewin unfortunately offered nothing in support of a visibly exhausted Lukaku who let the side down himself with some awful ball retention towards the end. With the ball not sticking at all up front for Everton, United were able to maintain their aerial bombardment from deep and from the flanks, leading to Williams blocking Luke Shaw’s goal-bound shot with an obviously out-stretched arm. The result was a spot-kick for Ibrahimovic from which he finally beat the unlucky Joel Robles.
It was a desperately disappointing end to a laudable defensive stand by an Everton defence that was marshalled superbly by Jagielka and Williams, both of whom belied their advancing years with excellent individual performances. To their right, Mason Holgate had also been mostly stellar as a right back deputising for Seamus Coleman, while Idrissa Gueye and Gareth Barry had done their part to keep United at bay until the last minute of the match.
Everton had started the game as though they meant to put the disappointment of Saturday’s Merseyside derby behind them. But it was Jose Mourinho’s men who almost struck first after just five minutes when Ibrahimovic capitalised on Holgate’s missed tackle and looked to fire a shot across Robles into the far corner of the goal but was denied by a brilliant saving tackle from Williams.
A long spell of pressure from the Blues eventually ended with them taking the lead after 21 minutes, though. A free kick on the left flank ultimately ended at Mirallas’s feet on the far side of the area and he forced David de Gea into blocking his shot from a tight angle behind for a corner.
From that set-piece, Williams’s looping header caused confusion between the goalkeeper and Marcos Rojo and Jagielka astutely flicked the ball behind him, through De Gea’s legs and into the net.
That drew an almost immediate response from United, although Lukaku had the chance when he dragged a shot wide in the 26th minute. With referee Swarbrick in wholly unpredictable mood, however, Everton unwisely courted trouble just outside their own box when Mirallas inexplicably hauled Jessie Lingard down and handed Daley Blind a shooting opportunity from 20-odd yards. His direct free kick was accurate and looking like it could creep inside the post but Robles clawed it out the air, spilled the ball as he collided with the post and Ander Herrera could only fire the rebound off the face of the bar.
The Toffees had a terrific chance to make it 2-0 when the United defence opened up in front of Lukaku and Mirallas made a great run into oceans of space to his right but the Belgian striker ignored his compatriot and went it alone instead, his shot being charged down by a defender and Tom Davies’s first-time rocket off the rebound striking Mirallas on its way to goal.
Six minutes before the interval, Herrera arrowed a shot seeking the corner of Robles’s goal but once more he flew across his line and made a finger-tip save to foil the Spanish midfielder with a top-drawer save.
Where Everton had been strong in the first half, they began the second in less convincing fashion and it would set the tone for the remainder of the game, where they were less sure in possession, lacking conviction in the final third and increasingly reliant on a defence that would be augmented by Matthew Pennington midway through.
Another ill-advised foul in a dangerous area outside the Blues’ area gave United their first sight of goal when Barry cynically checked Ashley Young, most likely out of frustration that the referee had taken no action when Rojo caught Idrissa Gueye with a potentially dangerous challenge just seconds earlier.
Paul Pogba, on as a half-time substitute, connected with the resulting free kick but saw his header come back off the crossbar with Robles beaten.
Things threatened to boil over when Mirallas, who looked to have the devil in him all evening, stole the ball at a drop-ball when the home team had expected him to do the sporting thing and kick it back to De Gea. That prompted an aggressive reaction from Young who was booked, but only after a word in the referee’s ear from his assistant.
The pressure from Mourinho’s men appeared to have told with 20 minutes to go, though. Lingard swung a cross in from the right which Ibrahimovic wrestled Pennington to reach but while he headed home off Robles, his celebrations were cut short by a marginal but probably correct offside call by the linesman.
And the same due combined a minute from the end of regulation time for what looked to be a legal carbon copy but Ibrahimovic headed over when he looked odds-on to score.
In between, Ross Barkley, who had veered in the match from busily effective to profligate and wanting too much on the ball, had narrowly missed finding Idrissa Gueye in the centre of one breakaway and then taken far too long to try and pick out Lukaku from another.
Lukaku himself had gone on one of his trademark rampaging runs where he powered past Rojo down the right flank but had burned himself out by the time he reached De Gea and the keeper was able to block his right-foot shot. Barkley had joined him in support and would made an ideal candidate for a surprise move — i.e. Lukaku not going for glory — but the striker didn’t ever seem to consider the option.
Two more counter-attack chances came as United were throwing men and the ball forward as time ticked on but awful ball control from Lukaku and then Calvert-Lewin mean that both opportunities to either advance and score the killer second or simply run the clock down in possession simply evaporated.
There was a crushing inevitability about the way United punished Everton for failing to do that in the last minute of stoppage time via Ibrahimovic’s calmly-struck penalty. Barry’s clearing header dropped only as far as Shaw, his looping header back into the box was prodded away from Fellaini by Jagielka, again to Shaw who bobbled a right-foot shot that was heading towards the bottom corner if neither Robles nor Williams could stop it. The ‘keeper may have saved it; the defender did, but illegally and he was sent off for deliberate handball.
Such are the fine margins of Everton’s season and what looks very likely to be the difference between a close tussle for the top four or five and a seventh-place finish. In what was a pulsating game at times, United looked ragged and vulnerable enough at the back, particularly when the match opened up at the end, that any kind of clinical attacking from the Blues would surely have resulted in a second goal.
Again, you couldn’t help feeling that Valencia, who combined to such great effect with Lukaku against Hull last month, or Lookman, who would have enjoyed himself against the shaky-looking Bailly, would have been better options off the bench than Calvert-Lewin. Koeman clearly sees something in the young striker to have instilled so much faith so early in his Everton career but he had a cameo to forget at what was a crucial juncture of a vital fixture in the context of the Blues’ season.
There may yet be some twists and turns in the final seven games and the Blues could put more pressure on their immediate rivals with back-to-back home games but this must go down as an opportunity frustratingly missed.
Undone at the death by moment of panic
Some close family friends are Manchester United season ticket holders and I got a lift up from them, Rob and his mother-in-law Cath picking me up from work. We were aware of the likely M56 crawl before we set off and our expectations were certainly met as we slowly made our way towards Old Trafford, Rob parking up about a 20 minute walk from the ground, just away from all the heavy after-match traffic.
Before kick off we just about had time for a quick pint. "We'll go the Town Hall" said Rob. Noticing my curious look he continued "It's a pie and a pint for fiver!". And sure enough, we got there and it was just that, complete with a reasonable selection of beers, quick service and a tasty pie. It was nice to recharge a little after a frustrating drive. We also gave ourselves plenty of time to get into the ground. Rob and Cath going one way, me taking Sir Matt Busby Way to the East Stand.
I was into the ground and up to my seat rather effortlessly, the players going through their final drills before heading in for final preparations. The team was changed somewhat from the Merseyside derby with Ronald Koeman deciding to go with four at the back, removing Matthew Pennington and drafting Gareth Barry into the midfield. Kevin Mirallas was preferred to Dominic Calvert-Lewin in attack. I was a little surprised to see Joel Robles retain his place in goal after quite an awful performance against Liverpool. Ex-blue Marouane Fellaini began the game for Manchester United whilst up front Zlatan Ibrahimavic returned from suspension.
It's a fabulous stadium Old Trafford and the Everton supporters certainly got behind their team from the off, though I am sad to report on a fair bit of racist language from a few guys around me aimed at pretty much any of the black players out there, including our striker. "Revel-head" and "Malteser-head" amongst others are of course unacceptable names to be thrown at players and I was sad to hear that from, I must stress a small minority, of my fellow Evertonians. It's been some time since I've heard anything like that.
This takes the shine off what was a dogged and spirited effort from Everton. We began brightly and got to grips with the game fairly early in what was quite the battle with tackles going in. Sadly the referee failed to officiate the game fairly, giving Manchester United the benefit of the majority of decisions and booking Idrissa Gana Gueye early on while letting Marouane Fellaini get away with similar offences without caution.
Our opener came somewhat out of nothing when Phil Jagielka did brilliantly to improvise and turn in a volley with his back to goal, squeezing it through the legs of David de Gea. A strange goal that one but good to see us now a threat from corner kicks again after our set-piece purgatory under Roberto Martinez. It took a while from where we were to figure out who had squeezed the ball in, until we realised it was Phil Jagielka who had sneaked it home as the players re-emerged for the restart.
The closest Manchrster United came to a first half equaliser was also from a set-piece, this time when Daley Blind's free kick was well saved by Joel Robles. Andre Herrera was first to the rebound but could only hit the crossbar from a tight angle. Jesse Lingard was simply pathetic in winning the free kick, deliberately obstructing Kevin Mirallas and then going down in a heap when Kevin tried to get around him. The referee was just as pathetic in his free kick award, this one of a series of poor decisions by Neil Swarbrick throughout the game.
We arrived art the break unscathed having defended resolutely. As for the second half, I'm a bit torn on what to make of it. The lads were ever so spirited and fought hard for what really should have been a very gritty three points, but Manchester United were not really getting past us and I felt we were looking good for the win until Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Luke Shaw were introduced. Luke Shaw, taking to the field to chants of "you fat bastard" from the Evertonians, provided better width from the left and was able to offer a better quality of cross, whereas Henrikh Mkhitaryan was able to offer more vibrancy as an attacking threat. This forced Ronald Koeman into a reactive change and I felt we went too defensive too early. With a quarter of the game still to play the lively Kevin Mirallas was sacrificed for another central defender in Matthew Pennington. I felt this played a bit more into Manchester United's hands and they were able to really pin us back and pile on the pressure.
That said, we did have plenty of chances to break and it was a combination of either the final ball lacking; the final ball well defended; or, more predominately, a real lack of cohesion between our forward players, that ensured the second goal never came. As the game wore on, though a lot was asked of him, we really needed more from Romalu but he was dead on his feet and could only contribute in fits and starts. At the other end, in no particular order, Paul Pogba headed against the crossbar when Manchester United where again given a free kick when Everton should have had it first but the referee typically favoured the hosts; Marouane Fellaini span and shot comfortably wide; Zlatan Ibrahimovic had the ball in the net but it was disallowed for offside; and, Zlatan headed over the crossbar with a good opportunity. Joel Robles, unrecognisable from the frozen man on Saturday, mopped up the rest. The travelling Evertonians roared their team on throughout.
We were into injury time and Everton had withstood a barrage of pressure and looked to be heading for the points. Maybe pressure brings panic and panic leads to bad decision making? Well it was certainly misguided of Ashley Williams to handle Luke Shaw's effort. Joel Robles likely would have saved it, but handle he did and the referee really had to give the penalty, much to his glee no doubt. A red card also for Ashley which the referee also really had to give. Having missed a penalty in his last outing I didn't really have much hope of Zlatan missing another and it was never really in doubt as he tucked it away in the corner. Everton tried to rally but as soon as it was punted long from to Romalu Lukaku from a free kick, Neil Swarbrick blew for full time...of course.
What a gutting way to have a win snatched away from you. I really thought we had done it but it wasn't to be. Credit to the buys to reacting with such spirit following Saturday's disappointment. It's a real shame as winning at Old Trafford would have made quite a statement and would have put us up to fifth position, even if temporarily. What an Everton way to lose out on the three points.
Still with seven games to play and four of them at home, we have an opportunity to finish the season strongly and you never know, it's possible that Arsenal and Manchester United could drop more points yet, even with their games in hand. Perhaps more crucially, so long as we don't finish any lower than we are now, we will have a European campaign to enjoy next season. Let's finish the job for this campaign, do some positive transfer business this summer and look forward as it's been a very promising campaign.
Onwards and upwards Blues.
Robles: Unrecognisable from Saturday's game and I'm dumbfounded as to how a player can be so poor one game yet so pivotal and decisive the next. Maddening. 9
Baines: Did very well and worked ever so hard both at left back and as wing back. A great effort. 8
Jagielka: A rock solid display and it's hard to fathom that he was performing so poorly earlier in the season that he was dropped. A true captains performance both with the goal and his marshalling of the back line and he was the most unlucky on the pitch not to finish on the winning team. My man of the match. 9
Williams: Ruined what was perhaps his best performance yet with his handball. I liked the telling off he gave to Romalu Lukaku for not pulling his weight when the ball was played up to him. Like most of us, I've been largely unimpressed with Ashley, but this performance shows what he can be capable of. There could be hope for him yet, even if he has to sit out on Sunday against the champions. 7
Holgate: Did very well and is much more comfortable at right back with some protection ahead of him. 8
Barry: Particularly in the second half he was very handy and made plenty of defensive tackles, headers and clearances. Also unlucky not to have finished on the winning team. My prove a vital squad player next season. 8
Gueye: Also excellent. Got about the pitch in his usual manner and did well given how long he had to do so with a caution against his name. A solid effort. 8
Davies: Worked tirelessly though struggled. As with all young players, you have to let them make their mistakes and learn the hard way. Give him a couple of years and he really could be the complete player. 5
Mirallas: Was lively throughout and unlucky to be hooked. I imagine he won't start the next game - surely Ronald Koeman can't have been impressed with his petulant attitude when he was substituted. 7
Barkley: Had a good game and used the ball well most of the time. Was fairly effective in the second half before substituted. 7
Lukaku: Battled well basically until our defensive reshuffle and then he hardly seemed interested and seemed to sulk a bit when more was needed of him. He was simply exhausted come the last 10 minutes however, which is probably why Dominic Calvert-Lewin was sent on to support him. 6
Pennington (for Mirallas): Made some good tackles and clearances as Everton soaked up the pressure. He will feel better for his efforts after his Merseyside derby struggles. 6
Calvert-Lewin (for Barkley): Was difficult circumstances to come into but he couldn't quite affect the game as was perhaps hoped. 5
Everton face the second of two testing away fixtures this week when they make the trip up the M62 to Old Trafford to face another top-six side in the form of Manchester United.
Reeling from Saturday's hugely disappointing Merseyside derby, the Blues' hopes of mounting a challenge to finish above Arsenal and tomorrow night's opponents in fifth place — and thereby avoid the Europa League qualifying rounds — probably depend on them coming away with a gold dust-esque away win against a side above them in the table.
It will be a tall order. United are currently on a 19-game unbeaten run in the Premier League, having not tasted defeat since their 4-0 hammering at Chelsea back in October. Their last home defeat came a month earlier in their derby against Manchester City and, of course, Everton's only win at Old Trafford in the last 25 years came a little over three years ago courtesy of the now-departed Bryan Oviedo's solo strike.
That memorable win was indicative of the short-lived but fearless attitude that was instilled in the squad by then manager Roberto Martinez but, in general, the old psychological traits forged by over a decade under David Moyes have proved hard to shake off.
Certainly, the fervent belief that the normally straight-talking and defiant Ronald Koeman would come in and banish such inferiority complexes has yet to be fulfilled and there's a feeling that the more defensive shape that he has used in matches away at the top sides this season has become his own twist on the Moyesean “knife to a gunfight” brand of self-defeatism in these kinds of games.
Many Evertonians will, no doubt, be hoping there will be a different system on show to the three-man central defensive formation that has now been so effectively dismantled by Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool. There is definitely an escalating desire among the fans in the build-up to this game to see the Blues really take the game to United and prey on the weaknesses that have made them the draw specialists of the top flight this season.
Koeman will likely have the same group of players available as he did on Saturday but he has admitted that the game against United will bring different challenges than the one against Liverpool so there could be changes to the starting XI.
Central defence, where Matthew Pennington was, unwisely, thrown into the deep end at Anfield with damaging results, would be the obvious starting point, with a reversion to a conventional flat back four on the cards. In that instance, Mason Holgate could be deployed at full back to the right of Phil Jagielka and Ashley Williams.
Central midfield could also see some alterations of Koeman feels that Gareth Barry has something to add to what will probably be a less frenetic encounter than the derby, while it remains to be seen if the Dutchman saw enough from the Dominic Calvert-Lewin-Romelu Lukaku partnership to persist with it over the option of recalling Kevin Mirallas to the lineup.
For his part, Jose Mourinho will welcome Zlatan Ibrahimovic back to his team following a three-match suspension and there can't be many in the Everton camp will be looking forward to a rested “Zlatan”. The narcissistic Swede scored what looked like it was going to be the winner in the reverse fixture at Goodison last December before Leighton Baines struck an 89th-minute penalty and he will surely want to make up for the time he has lost over the past month sitting on the sidelines.
Keeping him quiet while nullifying the more creative elements of Mourinho's midfield will be key for the Blues if they were to get anything out of the game. Likewise, some big stand-up-and-be-counted displays from some of the stars who went missing three days ago are going to be essential to Everton's chances.
Two draws from Liverpool away and Manchester United away would probably have been viewed as a decent return by the majority of Evertonians but the beauty of the three-points-for-a-win system is that a bit of adventure and single-mindedness in this fixture could earn three for the Blues on its own and put them level with the Red Devils on points in the table.
That, and the fact that anything can happen down the season's final straight should be incentive enough. We'll see if that is indeed the case.
Kick-off: 8pm, Tuesday 4th April, 2017
Referee: Neil Swarbrick
Last Time: Manchester United 1 - 0 Everton
Predicted Line-up Robles, Holgate, Williams, Jagielka, Baines, Barry, Gueye, Davies, Barkley, Mirallas, Lukaku