Never mind a League Cup tie at Aldershot with a completely new team, this was the genuine testof how Manchester United responded to their greatest humiliation of modern times.They passed it, albeit without the conviction of champions.
When Javier Hernandez scored inside 20 minutes, a straight-forward recovery seemed on the cards, which might have been thrown up in the air again had Everton been able to sustain their bold recovery beyond the half-time interval. After improving their poor record in this fixture, the home side deserved to be level at that point, Leighton Baines having hit the bar with a free-kick. But in the wake of a draining midweek Carling Cup defeat against Chelsea that went to extra-time, David Moyes' men flagged in a disappointing second-half display.
Their day was summed up by a supporter leaving the posher seats: "Rather predictable but not disgraced – and it hasn't done our goal difference much harm."
Given their lack of resources, that is the way of it for the Blues these days, especially on the current unkind run of fixtures which has brought defeats by Chelsea (twice), Liverpool and now both Manchester clubs. But for a win at Fulham last weekend courtesy of late goals from Louis Saha and Jack Rodwell, their position would be rather more precarious.
Manager Moyes has looked and sounded wearier these past few weeks than at any time since he joined the club almost 10 years ago. Yet he was able to put on a brave face yesterday. "I think we were unlucky not to get a point," he said. "First half we struggled to get to them a bit but finished the half well and second half we kept going and were just a bit short. Manchester United were resilient and we just couldn't break them down. But it's been a tough run of games and we've taken a bit of confidence from the way we've played."
At the end of what Sir Alex Ferguson called a "tough week for everyone", United's team-sheet had been awaited with more interest than usual. Those who paid the price for last Sunday's debacle were Rio Ferdinand, Anderson and Nani, all dropped (although Nani would appear as a substitute). Chris Smalling and Ashley Young were injured so Phil Jones played at right-back, where he performed better than across the other side of Stanley Park in midfield against Liverpool a fortnight ago.
Apart from one period in the last quarter of an hour of the first half, when Everton were allowed half-a-dozen chances, Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans stood firm in the centre of defence. Tom Cleverley added something until he was forced off before the hour, playing further forward than expected in what was effectively a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Darren Fletcher the only defensive midfielder.
In those circumstances, and against a defence missing the influence of Sylvain Distin, it was surprising that United did not create more opportunities, but there were none between the goal and a shot by Danny Welbeck some 40 minutes later. Even near the end, when they could play on the break, there was little to threaten Tim Howard.
Ferguson's strategy had been to strengthen the midfield, albeit with attack-minded players, in order to cut down on the remarkably high number of chances created against his team this season.
To that end it was successful, though the manager admitted he was indebted to Vidic's aerial strength. "It was a fantastic performance by Vidic," he said. "His heading ability was the key for us today. It was a hard game and we expected that. Second half we defended well and that was the pleasing aspect for me of winning 1-0."
The disappointment for neutrals was that on a dank Merseyside day with the floodlights on before the midday kick-off, the game didnot live up to the promise of an unexpectedly bright beginning.
In the first 15 seconds Everton's Seamus Coleman burst forward to shoot at David de Gea, and soon afterwards Welbeck wriggled through to set up a chance for Park Ji-Sung that Howard kept out with some difficulty.
Other than that the goalkeeper had little to do for some time apart from retrieving the ball from his net in the 19th minute. A loose pass out of defence from Baines unwittingly started the move, which flowed from Cleverley to Welbeck and then Patrice Evra for a cross met by an unmarked Hernandez five yards out.
In Everton's best spell on either side of the interval Baines struck the bar and Rodwell put one shot wide and troubled De Gea with another. But the 17-year-old midfielder Ross Barkley, introduced at half-time, faded after a promising start and the most exciting incident late on was the back injury to a linesman that led to six uneventful minutes of added time.
Everton (4-5-1): Howard; Hibbert, Jagielka, Heitinga, Baines; Coleman, Fellaini, Rodwell, Osman (Vellios, 76), Bilyaletdinov (Barkley, 46); Saha (Gueye, 84).
Manchester United (4-1-4-1): De Gea; Jones, Vidic, Evans, Evra; Fletcher; Park, Cleverley (Nani, 56), Rooney, Welbeck (Valencia, 73); Hernandez (Berbatov, 66).
Referee Mark Halsey.
Man of the match Vidic (Manchester Utd).
Match rating 6/10.