The defences put in place by Everton have always seemed one of the more unbreachable obstacles on Manchester City's journey to world domination and never were the wirecutters required more than last night.
They were fished out for the game's most bizarre moment – a fan handcuffing himself to a goalpost – but otherwise they were missing. Three shots on goal all night and the lead on Manchester United reduced to mere goal difference. Hacking through to the silverware cabinet suddenly looks an uncomfortable task for the side who so recently inflicted grievous damage on all who stood before them.
Roberto Mancini, the City manager, appeared to know what he was up against before the match, which, considering Everton's David Moyes had already defeated him four times in five, was no great surprise. "They fight for every ball. It is not enough to have good players," he said of Everton. This made the Italian's decision to blame himself for the defeat, late last night, all the more eye-catching. "I acknowledge my mistake. It is important for me to know this because like this I can't do the same mistakes in the next game," Mancini said. Pressed to elaborate, he continued: "I didn't prepare well for this game. I thought it was maybe easier. I know here it is never easy, never. I didn't [prepare well] during the training in the last three or four days. The players put everything on the pitch but I made some mistakes."
This self-flagellation is not entirely new for Mancini, who also left Merseyside taking the blame after the desperate 3-0 defeat at Anfield last April, five days before an FA Cup semi-final with Manchester United. There was a feeling, after that game, that this had been a ruse to deflect attention from his players and last night certainly presented none of City's recent excuses to hide behind: no injuries, no fixture logjam and no officiating controversy. The league leaders were simply not up to the kind of industrial struggle which they can expect to dictate the course of their push for the Premier League title over the next 15 games.
Moyes was delighted. "That's as good as it has been at Everton for a long time," he said. "With the players that we have missing, it says a lot about the club. We always seem to come back."
He said before the sides' meeting in Manchester last autumn that he felt like a combatant going into "a gunfight armed with a knife" and this did not feel too much different, even though yesterday's £6m addition from Rangers, the Croatian Nikica Jelavic, had arrived fresh from a local hotel room, scrubbed up to be presented as hopefully the biggest gift Glasgow's blue half has bestowed on Gwladys Street since Duncan Ferguson, 18 years previously. Louis Saha, the player with more shots on and off target than any of Moyes's players this season, was in the throes of being released to Tottenham Hotspur, with the six months remaining on his contract ripped up, while Moyes' didn't exactly look full of defensive ammo either. City's Edin Dzeko and his stand-in shadow Tony Hibbert were a comical mismatch in size – while the average age of the Everton bench was not much more than 19 years. So much for Everton's fabled "grand old team".
The first half crackled with class differential, even though the best chance arrived when Denis Stracqualursi stooped to meet the Royston Drenthe cross which looped over City's box after five minutes. It required Joleon Lescott to head off the line. Drenthe's badly misplaced pass seemed to have undermined everything when David Silva seized on it and launched a 30-yard pass which Sergio Aguero raked back away from Hibbert, firing narrowly wide. Then Dzeko laid into the path of Samir Nasri, whose swerving right-foot shot from 30 yards thudded against the bar. Everton's greatest attacking intent came when Drenthe, Tim Cahill and Phil Neville applied themselves to the pitch invader who stuck himself to Joe Hart's left post at the Park End for four minutes.
But Everton's esprit de corps was always there, in the high fives when Marouane Fellaini, who commanded an absorbing midfield battle with Nasri, volleyed narrowly wide the header Cahill laid into his path – then in the counter-attack which sent them ahead. Fitting, indeed, that it should have been the first Everton goal from Darron Gibson – a player gathered up by Moyes, the ultimate alchemist-manager, after Old Trafford deemed him inadequate this month for the battle of Manchester's gladiators. Aguero's drive through to goal had just been stopped when the ball was cleared up to Drenthe, who raced through City's vacant midfield and found Landon Donovan. Gibson stepped into the American's lay-off with a rasping shot, deflected in off Lescott, resonant of his United best. The shake of Mancini's head at the space that all three Everton players had been allowed, revealed that he did consider this to be his fault.
Gibson, who still looks like he is adapting at Everton, was granted space to unfurl another volley 10 minutes later. City reasonably felt they should have had a penalty 15 minutes from time when the substitute Aleksandar Kolarov crossed hard into the crook of Neville's arm. But Everton might have scored on another counter-attack and the course of the night was set. Moyes was impatient to leave his press conference to seal a deal to bring in Steven Pienaar on loan. Mancini was just impatient to leave.
Substitutes: Everton - Baxter (Drenthe, 78), Vellios (Stracqualursi, 88). Man City - Johnson (Milner, 62), Kolarov (Lescott, 68), De Jong (Barry, 86) .
Booked: Everton - Drenthe. Man City - Kompany, Lescott.
Man of the match Fellaini.
Possession: Everton 43% Man City 57%.
Attempts on target: Everton 4 Man City 11.
Referee P Walton (Northants).
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