High-flying United revel in Carrick's supremacy

Manchester United 1 Everton 0
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The Independent Football

If this had been Super Bowl XLIII rather than the umpteenth explanation of why United are emerging at a level above the rest of the Premier League, Michael Carrick would now be packing his bags for Disney World after one of the more formal elections of the MVP (Most Valuable Player). Edwin van der Sar achieved history with his 12th League shut-out in a row, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were immense in the middle of a soul-sapping defence and there were moments when Cristiano Ronaldo looked as if he hadn't woken up in the wrong place at the wrong time. All of them were dwarfed, however, by the contribution of Carrick.

He may not be going to Florida but he has surely written his own ticket for a journey that could well end with his election as Footballer of the Year.

This wouldn't be for a blaze of virtuosity – well, not entirely, because a perfectly delivered Carrick pass is becoming a routine glory of the English game – but rather the capacity to shape a team performance, set both its tempo and its ambition. That Carrick can do this has never been more evident than in this potentially decisive phase of a title race which United are threatening to turn to dust.

Ever since Sir Alex Ferguson made the strategic decision to prefer Ryan Giggs as the number one playmaker in the defeat of Chelsea, Carrick appears to be inflamed by the desire to achieve maximum relevance in every outing. Here we had the near sublime result: a performance that was flawless in all aspects. In Super Bowls quarterbacks tend to win MVPs because of the scale of their passing. Tick the box here for Carrick. He was a constant source of creativity in a team performance that was contained only by the famously dogged instincts of David Moyes' tireless Everton. But then he also fulfilled the pivotal necessity to do a bit of scrambling.

Whenever he did, which was frequently, Everton hurt. Occasionally the prize goes to a middle linebacker for his visionary defence. Mark down, then, another plus for Carrick, who was invariably around at the heart of danger to make a tackle or a block.

Let's be honest. Eighteen million pounds seemed somewhat on the high side for the gifted but perhaps a little too diffident midfield operator. Unusually tall for a natural dynamo, Carrick at one point might have been shaping up as a Ferguson folly. Now he is being increasingly acknowledged as a master-stroke. As Giggs and Paul Scholes fight the years, Carrick's only adversary is the fact that he is coming to his prime, and a superb cutting edge, at a relatively late age – at 27. Still, there is time enough to enter the roomy pantheon of great United – and English – midfielders.

Moyes was certainly in no doubt, saying, "Carrick was immense. He's a really good player, he's an excellent passer and he made a lot of good runs tonight. He got in the box and the penalty came from one of those runs and he made one or two prior to that. He's a good all-round player, and frankly all the United players are capable of doing so much.

"The way they have got it, there is so much strength in depth. If you come here as a player and sign for United you are going to find yourself out of the team for periods. Because you've got so many games, you have always to be at your best when you play for them.

"You think of those players, Evra, Rooney, Hargreaves, Scholes, Rafael etc, out for long periods. You might miss them, but they're not out for ever and in the meantime you see what depth United have."

Naturally, Ferguson displayed a large degree of contentment as he speculated on his best-case scenario of Liverpool and Chelsea sharing the points in yesterday's Anfield collision of suddenly desperate contenders. But he also conceded that he was less than rapturous because the splendidly "energetic" Everton had not been "put to bed". The comfort was that though Everton had maintained their reputation for living impressively in the highest company despite a relatively minuscule budget, and the complete absence of a specialist strike-force, they had not been allowed the semblance of a chance. Comfort, that is, for everyone at Old Trafford except the boss.

If we needed a reminder of why this might have been so, he obliged readily enough. "The name of football," he said, "is to kill them when you have them by the throat."

One reason it didn't happen was that on top of Everton's slavish adherence to the belief that defence is a large part of every player's responsibility, United's opponents also had central defenders of superb application and nerve.

Said Moyes, "I think that after Ferdinand and Vidic, our [Joleon] Lescott and [Phil] Jagielka, as a partnership, are the next best."

Jagielka believes that Everton have grown stronger while running the gauntlet of games against Liverpool, twice, Arsenal, and United with a deficit of just one goal and that their spirit will run high in the FA Cup replay with Liverpool on Wednesday. He also thinks United have set themselves apart.

He said, "United have been there and done it. There is a phrase about winning ugly. I'm not saying they were ugly tonight but they have done what they needed to do. The other teams aren't quite used to doing that and it could be crucial. If you are keeping clean sheets and have attacking options you're always going to have a chance. They are always going to score goals. If I was a gambling man I would put my money on United."

What price Carrick for Footballer of the Year? On this form, it will surely shorten in spite of his slender presence in the celebrity game. You can't, after all, do much more than put yourself at the heart of a serious challenge for every prize on the football horizon.

Goal: Ronaldo pen (44) 1-0.

Manchester United (4-4-2) : Van der Sar; G Neville (Brown, 56), Ferdinand, Vidic, O'Shea; Park, Carrick, Fletcher (Giggs, 75), Ronaldo; Berbatov, Tevez. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Fabio da Silva, Eckersley, Gibson, Welbeck.

Everton (4-5-1): Howard; Hibbert, Jagielka, Lescott, Baines; Osman, Arteta, P Neville, Fellaini (Anichebe, 68), Pienaar; Cahill. Substitutes not used: Nash (gk), Yobo, Jacobsen, Rodwell, Castillo, Gosling.

Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire).

Man of the match: Carrick.

Attendance: 75,399.