Fellaini provides the steel to put leaders to the sword

 

Roberto Mancini might have been upset at Marouane Fellaini's challenge on Edin Dzeko in the build-up to Darron Gibson's goal, but he cannot have been surprised. The Belgian's physical domination was the fundamental fact of this game, and he provided another reminder of the remarkable combination of physical and technical skills which he wields like a broadsword at the heart of Everton's midfield.

For much of the match, Fellaini fought a fascinating running battle with Samir Nasri, deployed last night at the core rather than the periphery of City's midfield. The irony is that Fellaini's and Nasri's lives and careers have been notably matched so far.

Born within five months of each other in 1987, they are both Europeans of Maghreb heritage. They both impressed for their first clubs with a nous and maturity which is not seen in all teenage midfielders, before coming to the Premier League in the summer of 2008. They both play with a canny and not always angelic approach to the opposition. The most obvious differences are in hair and size.

Last night Nasri had the best of the opening exchanges. He was moving swiftly and instinctively, dropping back into space and starting attacks in the way that new signing David Pizarro ought to do at City. One forward pass after 20 minutes sent David Silva through, leading to Dzeko winning a corner though he might have done better than that.

Nasri's orchestration helped City to dominate the ball. Everton were pinned back and Sergio Aguero missed an inviting chance to give City the lead. The closest they came to scoring all night was when Nasri, one of the cleanest strikers of the ball in the league, saw an opportunity from 30 yards. He swung through the ball with characteristic clarity and force, only to see his shot threaten to leave a hole in the crossbar, rather than the net.

That was Nasri's and City's finest moment of the night; from then on it was Fellaini's game, and Everton's. In truth this rebalancing had started 10 minutes before, with a delightful piece of Fellaini skill.

With the ball loose just outside Everton's area, and James Milner threatening, Fellaini pirouetted the ball away from him to launch an attack. It was an exceptional piece of football, a trick made famous by the most imperious European midfielder of North African heritage, and one which will have brought memories for Evertonians.

Just over two years ago Everton won this fixture 2-0. One of the highlights was Fellaini performing an even tighter version of that same turn to beat Craig Bellamy.

Last night's repetition of the act, both for its aesthetics and its resonances, inspired Fellaini, Everton and the fans to better things. Rather than sticking to the fringe of his own box, he started to bound up and down the pitch like Yaya Touré, in whose absence Fellaini was free to strut and enforce unchallenged.

Joleon Lescott had to head out a free-kick which Fellaini was threatening. Vincent Kompany then let Fellaini shoot from wide from a smart Denis Stracqualursi header.

Of course, City's attacks needed repelling, but Fellaini is able to rival even Nigel de Jong, on the bench last night, as the league's leading master of destruction. He might have been booked for a tackle on Nasri, but was not. Then, just before the break, he won consecutive tackles on Aguero, Nasri and James Milner, in a flurry of force.

By the start of the second half Fellaini was in full flight, and 15 minutes after the break another robust challenge set up the winning goal. He felled Dzeko on the half-way line, and surged forward towards Leighton Baines, whose cross reached Landon Donovan, and then Darron Gibson, and it was 1-0.

From there, Fellaini was the most important player on the pitch. He protected Everton's lead like a frantic and anxious parent, making tackles and blocks everywhere, stopping a swerving Aguero run, and then, with a crucial steal, denying, naturally, Nasri in front of goal.

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