Arteta pulls the strings to make champions wilt

Everton 1 Manchester United 1: Fellaini header gives Everton reward for second-half revival as Rooney loses plot on return to Goodison
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The Independent Online

One of the attractions of sport is how an apparently lost cause can be retrieved against all expectation. Once Manchester United scored midway through the first half yesterday, going on to achieve effortless dominance before the half-time interval, they seemed certain to be heading for the usual victory at Goodison – an eighth in nine visits – and temporarily, at least, for the top three of the Premier League.

The second half, however, belonged to a different game altogether, one in which Everton pressured their opponents all over the pitch in a way they should have done from the start. They scored a deserved equalising goal and might have received even greater reward.

By the end the champions were looking bedraggled, even though the earlier driving rain had long abated. Their superiority evaporated with it, and if Ryan Giggs had been the man of the first half in pushing them forward, Mikel Arteta eclipsed him thereafter. The home defence tightened up, Yakubu suddenly looked a threat, while a central midfield pairing of Marouane Fellaini and Leon Osman overpowered Giggs and the man he had forged a lovely goal for, Darren Fletcher.

Meanwhile, Croxteth boy Wayne Rooney, hoping for the 100th goal of his career on the ground where he struck that famous first one past Arsenal's David Seaman, remained subdued until earning a yellow card for a foul on Arteta, then inflaming the home crowd by kissing United's badge and being wisely taken off with 20 minutes to play. "The crowd were reacting and the way the referee was behaving, I thought Wayne might be sent off, so I took him off," Sir Alex Ferguson said.

That crowd was 4,000 below capacity, a reflection not so much of credit crunching on Merseyside as of Everton's poor home form; they have yet to win a match here this season.

O ye of little faith. It must have been quite a half-time talk by Everton's manager, David Moyes, the gist of which, he said, was to close United down in midfield: "We'd talked all week about not giving them room. Ryan Giggs especially tended to get too much. But we're really pleased about the way the players finished. I just hope it can be the launchpad for our season."

Take-off has certainly been delayed. Yesterday Moyes's side began in unexpectedly promising fashion, winning a corner in the first minute that Fellaini, the tall Belgian midfielder, headed over the bar and then putting together a passing move only thwartedby Wes Brown blocking Louis Saha's shot. Worryingly, however, Everton tended to give the ball away andUnited were smooth on the break.

Although Tim Howard had not previously been tested by his old club, he was beaten in the 22nd minute. Giggs, given far too much time and space again to collect the ball, set off on a driving run before playing in Fletcher, whose clever first touch took him past a flat-footed Joleon Lescott for a neat finish.

From then until half-time the pitch was a one-way street, heading towards a destination marked Howard's End. In one spell of two minutes the goalkeeper pushed Cristiano Ronaldo's drive round a post and parried Nemanja Vidic's header from the resulting corner, before Giggs slalomed through again to shoot wide. An air of inevitability seemed to have settled over a fixture that Everton have won only once in 27 meetings.

The transformation was therefore startling. Put under pressure for the first time, United wilted, the home side began to believe and the crowd stayed with them. Phil Neville, one of the three former United players in blue, said before the game his side needed to be "angrier", although his own reaction was controversial. Having fouled Patrice Evra, he left Ronaldo writhing – an admittedly not uncommon posture – with a ferocious tackle that led to equally fierce remonstration from old mates Giggs and Rio Ferdinand.

The effect was to lift the volume of support. Brown's mistake allowed Fellaini a shooting chance and soon afterwards Ferdinand miskicked, setting Yakubu away to win a throw on the right. Neville took it, received the ball back from Steven Pienaar and crossed for Fellaini, climbing above Vidic, to head in. Within a minute, Ferdinand, so composed in the first half, typified his team's disintegration by underhitting a back pass to Yakubu, whose shot was pushed on to a post by Edwin van der Sar. Only in the last 10 minutes did United, after three substitutions, manage so much as a shot.

"We had some good chances and should have capitalised on them," said their disappointed manager. "You've got to give Everton credit."