They had been brought down to earth even before yesterday's start by a humbling loss to the Spanish technicians of Villarreal four days earlier that will almost certainly end the potentially lucrative Champions' League venture before it has begun. A bright start was therefore required yesterday but United, given a much lighter work-out in midweek, settled more comfortably.
The home side, embarrassingly, only pepped up once James Beattie limped off with 18 minutes played. Marcus Bent, the substitute, was a much livelier leader of the attack, such as it was, but, just as he was lifting the team and crowd with a volley against the bar, United seized the lead through Ruud van Nistelrooy.
When a dreadful error by Joseph Yobo presented Wayne Rooney with a goal against his former club for the first time after 28 seconds of the second half, United had effectively scored twice in three minutes. They were comfortable thereafter, despite the inevitable introduction of Duncan Ferguson and some excellent late runs into threatening positions by Everton's best performer, Tim Cahill.
Leon Osman, brought in for Kevin Kilbane, offered less support, and although Phil Neville made a favourable impression at Goodison, the defenders behind him never came to grips with the movement of Rooney and Park Ji-Sung, the South Korean standing in on his debut for the injured Cristiano Ronaldo.
While most neutrals would prefer to see Rooney much further forward, it may be that Ferguson's stubborn employment of him out wide, but with licence to drift inside, will make him a better all-round player. On his third return to Goodison since the acrimonious departure 12 months ago, he certainly passed the test of temperament, and had an excellent game. Rio Ferdinand, having belatedly signed his contract, was spared further barracking by his own supporters, and also did particularly well.
Then there was Van Nistelrooy. Playing in fewer than half of United's games last season, he finished with six League goals. He has looked much sharper this time, as his manager promised, and had already worried the Gwladys Street end twice before dispiriting them with a goal just before the interval. The first effort was a direct free-kick as early as the third minute, clipped just too high, followed by a low drive from 20 yards that flew equally close to the frame of the goal. There was also a justifiable shout for a penalty when he was held back by Yobo.
The goal was vintage stuff, poked in first time with an outstretched right foot as David Weir lunged at John O'Shea's cross from the left. Rooney had begun the danger, coming in off his flank again to feed the advancing Irishman for his smart centre. The move illustrated how natural width might have been lacking in the absence of Ronaldo and Ryan Giggs, but Gary Neville on one wing and O'Shea were always ready to fill the space.
Rooney, checking inside his man and dragging a shot wide of the far post, had added to Everton's unease early on, before the perennially disappointing Beattie hobbled off, to be replaced by Bent. The new man's first intervention was significant, driving at United's defence to offer an opportunity for Simon Davies to cross and Cahill to head at goal, Edwin van der Sar doing well to divert the ball for a corner. It was the first repayment of the modest fee for United's 11th goalkeeper since Peter Schmeichel, which will prove money exceptionally well spent. "I thought Tim should have scored that one, but he claimed he was pushed," said Everton's manager, David Moyes.
If United were vulnerable, it was in the air. Yobo won the header from a right-wing corner and nodded back across goal for Bent to ping a volley on to the crossbar. But that was the home side's last encouraging moment of the afternoon. Three times in a matter of minutes before the interval, they were cut apart down the wings. First, Park crossed for Van Nistelrooy, whose shout for a penalty went unheeded by Graham Poll; the under-rated Darren Fletcher, having another good game, set up Gary Neville for a centre that Paul Scholes hit high over the bar; and finally, Van Nistelrooy poached a goal.
As with the first half, so with the second: Everton required a bright beginning. Instead, in driving rain, they had their supporters weeping by conceding an unbearably soft goal. From the first move of the half, O'Shea lost possession down by the corner flag, whereupon Yobo committed the sort of howler that under-nine teams are warned against, turning the ball square across his own goal in the vague direction of Weir. He might even have got away with it had the pass been anything like accurate, but it was the opposite, and Rooney's instinct was rewarded with an open goal which he celebrated with understandable relish.
"We hadn't done much wrong in the first half," Moyes claimed. "So I've not gone in the dressing-room and ranted and raved. It was just a couple of real lapses." There was no way back from the second of them, despite Cahill's Martin Peters-like runs, and one late drive by Phil Neville. At the other end Park twice missed badly, a useful reminder of the profligacy that dogged United last season, when they had more shots than any team in the Premiership, yet managed only 58 goals.
"Everton are a difficult team to play against," Ferguson said generously. "So it's a great result. We've got a result I don't think many of the top teams will get." Moyes would like to think the same, but the evidence was far from compelling.
- More about:
- Gary Neville
- John O'Shea
- Manchester United
- Park Ji-Sung
- Phil Neville
- Premier League
- Ruud Van Nistelrooy
- Sir Alex Ferguson
- Wayne Rooney