Football, as Sir Alex Ferguson said after an epic match in which Manchester United famously scored twice in added time. Bloody hell. The United manager, having left out Wayne Rooney to avoid the vilification he anticipated from the Goodison Park crowd, reached the 90-minute mark with his side apparently strolling to a 3-1 win. Two goals in rapid succession, by Tim Cahill and Mikel Arteta, sent Everton's followers away singing, not about Rooney's alleged sexual infidelities but of a storming fightback.
Astonishingly, Everton were marauding upfield in search of a winner when Martin Atkinson blew for time moments before Edwin van der Sar smothered Phil Jagielka's shot. David Moyes ran on to remonstrate with the official, saying later: "It was an incredible game, but people are paying to see a football match, not a referee. There were two goals in three minutes [of additional time] so you would have thought he'd add more than 10 seconds when we broke from their corner kick. It was an amazing decision not to allow that moment to progress."
Ferguson did not disguise his frustration as he sought to make sense of the events of a day which began with his decision to spare Rooney abuse from his once-fellow Evertonians. "Our last two away matches have been like that because we lost a goal at Fulham two minutes from time," he said. "We've wasted chances. We had the opportunities to bury Everton and didn't do it."
After revealing that Rio Ferdinand would play for the first time this season in Tuesday's Champions' League tussle with Rangers at Old Trafford, Ferguson continued: "For the most part I was pleased with the performance. I can't dispute that part. We played some good football but we've just thrown it away." Singling out Dimitar Berbatov as United's outstanding individual, he hailed the Bulgarian's afternoon of solo front running as "brilliant" before concluding ruefully: "But it's all wasted because we've thrown two points away."
Berbatov had capped a silky display with a well-taken goal, giving United what looked an unassailable lead after Darren Fletcher and Nemanja Vidic struck in the space of four minutes either side of the break. Yet Everton, who had led through Steven Pienaar, repeated their feat of the previous two seasons of emerging unbeaten against United after falling behind.
Rooney's absence at least ensured that the focus was now squarely on football rather than the noises off. It seemed from the early stages that Everton might have taken encouragement from their former prodigy's omission. They dominated the early exchanges, with Arteta's free-kick clipping the crossbar and Leighton Baines miscuing horribly when Tony Hibbert's cross reached his favoured left foot. United, who had Gary Neville making his first appearance of the season against the tricky Pienaar, were penned in their own half for long spells.
United, prompted by the guile of Paul Scholes, gradually passed, grafted and manoeuvred their way back into contention, and John O'Shea sent a volley against the far post on the quarter-hour mark. Their increasing share of possession was reflected in two gilt-edged opportunities – and a two fine saves by Tim Howard – as the first half entered its final 10 minutes. The former United keeper flung out a foot to divert Scholes' goalbound 20-yard drive following a free-kick rolled into the United man's stride by Nani, the American's heroics all the more commendable as the shot took a sizeable deflection off Baines. Then, after Fletcher outpaced John Heitinga on the right, the ball broke to Ryan Giggs and it took a one-handed stop to prevent United going ahead.
The deadlock-breaker went instead to Everton. Cahill, from a right-back position, launched a long ball which Patrice Evra missed, leaving Arteta in a sprint with Neville which resembled two long-distance runners toiling towards the line. Van der Sar saved Arteta's shot with a boot, only for the ball to break to Leon Osman, who selflessly fed Pienaar for a sidefooted goal. United were level by half-time and ahead two minutes after the restart. When Nani broke down the Everton left, no one picked out the run by Fletcher, who scored with aplomb from inside the six-yard area.
Everton's dismay was compounded when Nani was again given space and time to deliver from the flank, Vidic rising unchallenged to head his first goal this year. It looked like game, set and match when United plumped up a two-goal cushion midway through the second half. Scholes' long pass saw Sylvain Distin sell himself badly as the ball came down, enabling Berbatov to kill the ball with a sublime touch, lope clear and calmly look around him before stroking a nonchalant shot beyond Howard.
Nani and Berbatov both wasted chances to kill off Everton, who themselves lamented a weak finish by Osman, but two Baines crosses exposed United at the death. Cahill headed in the first before rising to feed Arteta, whose shot took a major diversion off Scholes to leave Van der Sar wrong-footed and Goodison delirious and disbelieving.
Substitutes: Everton: Yakubu for Heitinga (69), Coleman for Hibbert (69) Man Utd: Park for Evra (80)
Bookings: Everton: Heitinga Man Utd: Giggs
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Man of the match: Berbatov