Football: Everton given reality jolt

Everton 1 Manchester United 4
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THIS WAS down-to-earth day for Everton, who were beginning to entertain optimistic visions again after going 10 matches without losing, a feat not performed for two years. No matter that six of those matches were drawn and four were goalless. "Take the positive tack," Craig Short urged in his column in the programme. "Look how accomplished we have become at preventing goals."

He will know not to tempt providence again. Eight minutes after Everton's defence had parted company in the middle to allow Dwight Yorke to score his eighth United goal, Short made a personal donation to the Red cause by heading a cross into his own net.

But there was more. "I think it's fair to say," he continued, attempting to explain Everton's chronic inability to score goals, particularly at home, "that we have sacrificed committing men to attacking areas to ensure our defending is right."

Oh dear. So committed were Everton to forcing an equaliser after Duncan Ferguson had at last broke their Goodison duck they played right into United's hands, allowing themselves to be torn asunder by rapid counter- attacks not once, but twice in the space of five second-half minutes, which put the match beyond their reach.

At least you could not fault Everton for spirit. Yet United won with ease, without having to play especially well, and there was no great pleasure for Alex Ferguson in putting one over Walter Smith, his old friend and one-time colleague in the Scottish management camp. "He's a good manager," he said of the man who took Rangers to seven Scottish titles, "but he's got a big job here".

There is no disputing that. The gulf between Everton and United is considerable. If Smith is to achieve what Ferguson has, then Goodison fans should be prepared for a long wait.

United, on the other hand, may not have to wait long to restore themselves to the summit of the Premiership. Aston Villa, unable to play because of Chelsea's waterlogged pitch, now lead by only a point and will be under pressure to beat Tottenham at home next Saturday so as not to let United sneak past them when they meet Newcastle on Sunday.

By then, United should have cemented their lead in Group D of the Champions' League at the expense of Brondby, due at Old Trafford on Wednesday, although the United manager's vision of a smooth passage into the knock-out stages has been clouded by the injury to Ryan Giggs, who has a fractured bone in his left foot that will almost certainly rule him out of the trip to Barcelona and possibly the home fixture with Bayern Munich.

Ferguson can only hope that the progress being made by Jesper Blomqvist, signed to provide an alternative to Giggs on the wide left, is continued. The Swede, a pounds 4.4m buy from Parma, had his best game for United on Saturday, an excellent display that included the creation of one goal, for Andy Cole, and the scoring of another, his first since his transfer.

Blomqvist has needed time to adjust to the Premiership but is thriving now. Ferguson believes he has the talent almost to be Giggs' equal and while that remains a matter for debate, the blossoming of his form could not be more timely.

The absence of Giggs at critical times last season was blamed by some for United losing their Premiership title and the Champions' League quarter- final tie against Monaco. Ferguson lamented at the time his lack of cover, but believes he has it now.

Meanwhile, Smith's feeling was that the match could be forgotten in the context of the season, when beating teams closer to Everton's level will be more important than results against the top sides. The chance to redress the balance against weaker teams will not come immediately, however. Next weekend, they travel to Arsenal.

Goals: Yorke (14) 0-1; Short og (23) 0-2; Ferguson (30) 1-2; Cole (59) 1-3; Blomqvist (64) 1-4.

Everton (4-4-2): Myhre; Short (Dunne, 67), Watson, Materazzi, Unsworth; Cadamarteri, Dacourt, Collins, Ball; Ferguson, Bakayoko. Substitutes not used: Gerrard (gk), Cleland, Grant, Milligan.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Brown, Stam, G Neville, P Neville (Irwin, 67); Beckham, Scholes, Keane, Blomqvist; Cole, Yorke. Substitutes not used: Cruyff, Van der Gouw (gk), Solskjaer, Berg.

Referee: P Jones (Loughborough).

Bookings: Everton: Short, Ball, Bakayoko, Unsworth. Manchester United: Keane, G Neville, Scholes.

Attendance: 40,079.

Man of the match: Blomqvist.