It seems even Sir Alex Ferguson is susceptible to a "psychological jab" from Jose Mourinho now and again. Though he dismissed loaded comments from his closest rival on the nerve, away form and strength of Manchester United as mere mind games, Ferguson could not resist the temptation to show the Chelsea manager that Old Trafford's resources do stretch beyond his usual suspects against Everton last night.
Making five changes to the side that squandered the chance to establish a six-point lead over the champions on Sunday, the United manager was, for once, repaid by the fringe players who cast the greatest doubt on the League leader's ability to remain on top as David Moyes' side were comfortably swatted aside and a three-point lead over Mourinho retained.
Ferguson's reward for gambling was an ugly performance but a resounding victory, yet while there was vindication for his rotation policy it will require fiercer tests than the one provided by an Everton side limited in numbers, ambition and menace to suggest his squad can stretch far enough to deprive Chelsea of a hat-trick of titles.
John O'Shea, Darren Fletcher and Kieran Richardson were among those handed rare opportunities to prove that their manager's confidence in them is not misplaced, with the Irish midfielder illustrating their positive response by flicking home United's third in the 88th minute, although Ferguson did give credence to the suspicion that he holds Ryan Giggs responsible for Ricardo Carvalho's equaliser on Sunday - as a consequence of a dreadful cross-field pass that handed Chelsea a throw in the build-up to their goal - by leaving the Welsh international out of the squad entirely.
"I told Ryan on Sunday that he wouldn't be playing tonight. He is 33 today and he's got to look after the old species," insisted Ferguson. "Dropping points on Sunday put pressure on me in terms of changing the team but with Benfica up next week I wanted to make sure that players we might need, and who haven't been playing recently, would not be cold. It was a bit of a risk to make so many changes, and it's true that you don't get the same fluency with so many changes, but we have got away with it."
With in-form Nemanja Vidic also out as a result of a tender jaw suffered against Chelsea, though not fractured as United had initially feared, the home side's team sheet should have provided Moyes with all the incentive he needed to abandon a cautious approach the moment it landed.
Shorn of his leading goalscorers, the injured Andrew Johnson and Tim Cahill, however, the Everton manager had few attacking options. The visitors were initially impressive, Leon Osman, James McFadden and Alan Stubbs all going close on a night when Gary and Phil Neville made history as the first brothers to captain opposing sides in the Premiership. Though careless in possession and lacking the movement a midfield comprising Giggs and Paul Scholes would have inspired, United gradually found encouragement and six minutes before the break they edged in front when Cristiano Ronaldo justified the decision not to include him among the managerial cull.
Kieran Richardson instigated the move with a dangerous run from the left that eventually invited Michael Carrick to shoot from 20 yards. Though Nuno Valente blocked the effort, the rebound fell to his Portuguese team-mate and, with Richard Wright wrong-footed in anticipation of Carrick's shot, Ronaldo's low drive rolled beyond his grasp and into the bottom corner.
Patrice Evra made the game safe with his first United goal and the team's second in the 63rd minute. Wayne Rooney, much to his satisfaction having responded to constant abuse from his former supporters by kissing the United badge on his shirt, was the instigator with a perfectly weighted pass that released the French full-back away from the hesitant Joseph Yobo. From an acute angle Evra chanced his luck and was rewarded as his shot sailed between the legs of Tim Howard's replacement in the Everton goal, a feat repeated when O'Shea turned the defender's cross beyond Wright at the death.
"It was never a 3-0 game," insisted Moyes, although there was never any doubt as to the destiny of the three points.
Goal: Ronaldo (39) 1-0; Evra (63) 2-0; O'Shea (89) 3-0.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Evra; Fletcher, Carrick (Brown, 73), O'Shea, Richardson; Ronaldo (Heinze, 68), Rooney. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Saha, Scholes.
Everton (4-4-1-1): Wright; Yobo, Stubbs, Lescott, Valente; Arteta,Neville, Carsley, Osman (Vaughan, 76); McFadden; Beattie. Substitutes not used: Ruddy (gk), Weir, Van der Meyde, Anichebe.
Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire).
Booked: Manchester United Evra; Everton Arteta.
Man of the match: Evra
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