Everton 0 - 2 Manchester United
There was a certain measure of incredulity and amusement from some quarters of the media when Manchester United lined up a deal over the summer for Edinson Cavani. An injury-prone 33-year-old on massive wages was not seen as the answer to the problems afflicting a novice manager heading into a potentially defining season and it was mocked as further evidence of the Red Devils’ financial profligacy and short-sighted thinking.
It says something about the disparity in riches between that club and Everton that even with the mind-bogglingly expensive mistake that was the move for Alexis Sanchez, United were able to risk tying another “washed-up” international forward to a fat contract. And on Wednesday night, that gamble on proven quality paid off and could, ultimately, win Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the Carabao Cup.
Cavani’s execution in front of goal in the 88th minute ended up being the deciding moment of an increasingly attritional contest and it confirmed the Toffees’ exit from this cursed competition at the quarter-final stage for a second successive season. 12 months may have elapsed since that defeat to Leicester under Duncan Ferguson’s temporary leadership but, in many ways, the same factors were at play for an Everton side beset by key injuries and fatigued by a busy December schedule.
United were able to mitigate the effects of their fixture list by making nine changes to the team that thrashed Leeds over the weekend; Carlo Ancelotti made two to his outfield, bringing in André Gomes and Seamus Coleman, but his side was a poor match for the depth in quality at Solskjaer’s disposal. It’s why talk of a move for veteran Sami Khedira next month might not just be media talk.
In truth, the visitors should have been out of sight by half-time; picking up where they had left off in the League last month, they swarmed their hosts in the opening 20 minutes in as one-sided an opening to a match at Goodison Park as any in memory. But the score was somehow goalless at half-time and remained that way until two minutes from the end of the regulation 90.
Credit for that should go to Everton’s doggedness and resilience but, again, it was illustrative of the gulf between the two clubs’ resources that Solskjaer could finish the match with three forwards in Cavani plus substitutes Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial while Ancelotti could turn only to Tom Davies, Bernard and, in an act of desperation once the prospect of penalties appeared to have evaporated, Cenk Tosun. One team was looking to win it late, the other was, by Ancelotti’s own tacit admission, hoping for penalties and therein lies the crux of the matter for Everton — there is much investment yet to make in this squad before it is capable of truly competing.
For all the money spent, the depth of Ancelotti’s is woefully short on match-winning quality. Rome wasn’t built in a day; we know this, but it was still massively dispiriting to see the chasm in financial resources and quality between ourselves and Manchester United laid bare. On the one hand it left you feeling somewhat foolish for believing that the Blues could actually win this trophy this season but on the other you were left wondering what might have been had Everton been able to call upon their first-choice XI.
In fairness, United began this tie in almost irresistible fashion and Everton were clinging on to parity in the early stages. Five corners and a shot deflected over the bar by Coleman inside the first 10 minutes were followed by near calamity by Robin Olsen as he almost gifted Cavani an open net and then three vital saves from the Swede all to prevent the Uruguayan from opening the scoring.
Everton’s first attempted foray into opposition territory took 12 minutes to arrive and it ended up back with their goalkeeper. Only when Gylfi Sigurdsson slalomed his way past a couple of players and saw a shot blocked by Harry Maguire did the home side even remind the visitors that they were in a game.
As it so often did last season and has done so this term when key personnel have been absent, the problems were in midfield. Now 32, Nemanja Matic has faded as a force for United but he had the freedom of Goodison for long stretches in the first half and together with Bruno Fernandes, he was pulling strings and orchestrating attacks. That was in stark contrast to André Gomes who has been a shadow of the player Everton signed from Barcelona for many months now; lead-footed, lacking situational awareness, a non-entity from a defensive perspective and unable to consistently find a team-mate, there wasn’t even so much as a shadow of the Portuguese on Wednesday.
In Allan’s absence, Abdoulaye Doucouré was like a machine covering every blade of grass and also trying to mount attacks but there was only so much he could do, even supported by Sigurdsson’s own industry. There was just too much to cope with from United but cope Everton eventually did as they were able to blunt Solskjaer’s attack through stubborn organisation, although only after Mason Greenwood had clipped the post with a header from Fernandes’s cross and Paul Pogba has headed straight at Olsen from a corner.
Finally asking some questions of their own at the other end, Everton forced a first saves from Dean Henderson when Dominic Calvert-Lewin planted a header into the his arms and Sigurdsson prompted a two-handed stop from a free-kick that the former Sheffield United loanee pushed behind.
That Everton failed to register a single shot on target in the second half rather told the story of a general failure of execution in the final third. Alex Iwobi deserved credit for constantly trying to make things happen and in the closing stages ever if he couldn't deliver a telling final ball, Calvert-Lewin ran himself ragged but suffered from similarly wayward distribution while Sigurdsson appeared to be a one-man mission to drag his side over the line.
It wasn't enough and the loss of Richarlison following a snide barge by Fernandes that pushed him into Eric Bailly,sent the Brazilian to the turf like a sack of spuds and necessitated his removal from the game in a concussed daze probably ended everton's chances. Richarlison had largely been disappointing but he carries a constant threat, even if he now routinely runs into trouble rather than beating a man.
United appeared to have run out of ideas themselves after Cavani had slammed a deflected shot into the side- netting shortly after half-time and the game was heading for penalties when the Uruguayan struck with a clinical effort two minutes from the end. Harry McGuire sent a simple ball through the middle to Martial who in turn found Cavani outside the box and he drilled a shot into the far corner beyond Olsen’s reach.
Everton were forced to throw everything at trying to grab an equaliser and were almost picked off by Fernandes who clipped the woodwork before Martial finished the job on another counter-attack to make it 2-0.
While the result was depressing, it wasn't entirely unexpected and merely underscored the work that is still required to get this squad strong enough to compete for honours. There was a case for Cavani not being on the pitch to score the winner has referee Andy Madley done his job when the striker threw Mina down by the throat and Fernandes might have seen red himself on another day but, at the end of the day, United’s second string was just better.
Ancelotti’s management, the unpredictability of the current season and the team’s new-found defensive resilience may be able to keep the club in the upper reaches of the Premier League table but in order to break into the top four or finally end the trophy drought, it’s going to take a huge amount of luck or more targeted signings and expenditure in the transfer market.
Whether Marcel Brands is moved to continue doing that in the January window, a period is on record as disliking, remains to be seen but while vitally important members of the squad are out, there is just no way for Everton to realistically compete. The personnel simply isn’t there and that is the unpalatable truth.