Manchester United did what they nearly always do yesterday, they won at Everton. This was their 13th win in the 16 occasions they have played in the Premier League at Goodison but there was one difference: it is difficult to remember when they last showed so little panache. A 1-0 win is famously associated with George Graham and Arsenal but Sir Alex Ferguson's team recorded their third single-goal win in succession to go top of the League, albeit for 45 minutes. Boring, boring United? At the moment they are heading in the right direction but the swashbuckling cavaliers of 12 months ago have been replaced by the severest roundheads
Compare this to the corresponding fixture from last season and you get the idea. Last April, United, 2-0 down, tore at Everton in the final 30 minutes to win 4-2 for a defining performance that, in effect, clinched them the title. Yesterday's game might also define their campaign, but Old Trafford will not be selling many 2007-08 DVDs if it does.
It was decided by an 83rd-minute goal but, in tune with a season in which they have misfired it was not a striker who got the goal, but Nemanja Vidic. They seem to be running out of ideas about how to score, too, because the deciding moment was a carbon copy of the strike that gave them a win over Sunderland. Then, glory be, it was a forward, Louis Saha, who headed in at the near post from a corner; yesterday it was the Serbian centre-back, who crowned an exemplary performance in United's rearguard, to outpace and outstretch his marker and thump the ball beyond Stefan Wessels. Job done, pity about the lack of thrills.
"It was a great result," Ferguson, the pragmatist, said, listing qualities that included effort and good defending. "We know we haven't got our strongest team at the moment but when we get our forwards back we'll be all right."
Well, may be. Of course Wayne Rooney, who traditionally acts as the blue touch paper on this occasion, was missing, but even without the former Evertonian there was a lack of fluidity about United and it is breeding frustration within the team. Paul Scholes could have been sent off for two bookable offences and Cristiano Ronaldo was cautioned for diving which brought predictable robust defences from Ferguson but, nevertheless, underlines a tension in the champions. On Scholes' booking, Ferguson said: "The crowd got him that yellow card. The referee's view was blocked but he heard the crowd and gave him a booking." On Ronaldo he was equally forthright. "It was outside the box but he definitely caught him. To get a yellow card for that is ridiculous."
Those incidents apart the game had a surprisingly low-key atmosphere, compared to the incendiary occasions of the past – United were reduced to nine men three seasons ago. Ronaldo was soon wandering from his flank which gave opportunities for both teams.
Leighton Baines, frequently with no winger to mark, could attack with alacrity and Everton were appealing for a penalty after seven minutes when Michael Carrick tripped him on the edge of the area. Television showed the decision was right, by inches, but with Rio Ferdinand also having problems with Yakubu, the home side had the initiative until Ronaldo forced a flying save from Wessels after 16 minutes and Vidic turned and shot wide from Ryan Giggs' corner.
The mood changed late in the first half when Mikaël Silvestre hurt his knee and was replaced. It was an accident but it acted as a catalyst for a mad five minutes where Scholes was booked for throwing the ball away and then tested Alan Wiley's patience with a horribly mistimed tackle on Mikel Arteta.
Scholes stayed on to play a pivotal role after 47 minutes when he cleared Andy Johnson's near- post header from Arteta's corner and he should also have scored in the supreme moment of the match nine minutes later. Giggs' volley primed Carlos Tevez who chipped exquisitely over the Everton rearguard only for Scholes to blaze over.
Vidic's goal ultimately made Scholes' miss irrelevant but Everton might have made him pay for his profligacy in the closing seconds. James McFadden curled a shot that Edwin van der Sar only just tipped away and Joseph Yobo's follow-up was blocked excellently by Ferdinand.
"We didn't deserve to lose all three points," Everton's manager David Moyes said. "It's hard to take because a momentary lapse at a corner cost us. It shouldn't have happened. We should have been tighter."
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