Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United may have, so far, failed to match the swagger of Chelsea this season, but Ferguson's side are working to more pragmatic targets and the manager viewed this workmanlike victory over Everton with relief.
With Chelsea's earlier victory over Wolves briefly opening the gap at the head of the table to eight points, it was the result, not the performance that counted to Ferguson and his players. And while an outstanding first-half strike from Darren Fletcher, backed up by a well-taken second from Michael Carrick and a deflected third from Antonio Valencia ensured a comfortable victory, the most important outcome for United was that they remain in touch with Carlo Ancelotti's side.
A five-point gap may be daunting, particularly when Chelsea are in such commanding form, but Ferguson knows titles are largely won and lost in the second half of the season and his immediate concern is to keep the leaders in sight until January. "That's the name of the game for us," said the manager. "I have always said, and I stand by it, if we get to new year and we are within a point or a point ahead or level, then we have a great chance in the second half of the season."
Ferguson's assessment of United's problems so far this season led him to pinpoint his side's failure to convert crucial openings. On this occasion he had reason to be satisfied that his side largely made the most of the opportunities that fell their way, particularly Fletcher, whose 35th-minute effort ended a nervy opening and put the home side in control.
"I would have taken it before the game," Ferguson added. "I think the performance was controlled. We showed good patience in the first half which you need to break down teams like Everton. We got the goal at the right time and a great goal by Darren Fletcher, a goal you wouldn't expect him to score. It was a quality finish, he is improving all the time."
The manager's search for a more potent forward line led him to pair Michael Owen with Wayne Rooney for only the second time in a League game although his options were limited by the withdrawal of Dimitar Berbatov with a knee injury, picked up on international duty with Bulgaria in midweek.
Yet while there were flashes from the United strikers of the understanding that once made them so effective at international level, the combination of limited service and Everton's determined defending meant they struggled to create anything more than half-chances during the first half.
Everton manager David Moyes packed the midfield during the first half in an attempt to smother the game and for 35 minutes the plan looked as though it might succeed. Then Patrice Evra sent over a looping cross that was met by Valencia who headed into the path of Fletcher and the Scot volleyed into the top corner from the edge of the area.
With his side trailing at the interval, Moyes adopted a more positive approach and the half-time introduction of Yakubu gave Saha much-needed support and made the visitors a more potent attacking force. But they fell further behind after Sylvain Distin intervened to deny Owen and from the resulting corner, Rooney's sliced shot was turned back towards Carrick by Giggs and the England midfielder beat Howard with a low shot.
The visitors' best chance had gone and a potentially troublesome fixture turned into a routine three points when Valencia's shot was deflected past Howard off Leighton Baines.
"We are really patched up at the moment and it's not been easy trying to find a winning formula," said the Everton manager David Moyes." We did not do enough today. Manchester United had a lot of dominance of the game so I can't complain about it."
Referee: Steve Bennett
Man of the match: Fletcher
Match rating: 5/10Reuse content