Out-fought away from home in the league and beaten with a goal from a set-piece: at least Robin van Persie's Manchester United debut last night was not too much of a departure from all those years he spent at Arsenal.
After losing out in May in a title race that was decided on goal difference, it could hardly be denied that every point counts these days, even three that are dropped in August. For that alone, Sir Alex Ferguson will have reason to regret this defeat at Goodison Park, although he will have plenty more cause to look back in anger.
Quite simply his team seemed to be caught cold on this warm night on Merseyside when they faced an Everton team who, from the very start, looked most likely to command the game. In Marouane Fellaini, the match-winning goalscorer, Everton had the outstanding player who left the pitch to a standing ovation when he was substituted in injury-time at the end.
Unfortunately for United, even after Fellaini, Everton had the next best four players on the pitch at the very least when you took into account the performances of Steven Pienaar, Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin. For United, this was their first opening day defeat since they lost to Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in the first game of the 2004-2005 season.
In April, Everton had twice fought back from two goals behind to United at Old Trafford to earn a 4-4 draw, a result that did as much as any result to change the direction of the title race before the dramatic last day. It barely needs to be said but given how little David Moyes has been able to spend this summer – in net terms it would appear he is in profit – last night was another small miracle.
At the start of the game, Everton paraded Kevin Mirallas, a pnds5.3m signing from Olympiakos whose fee, along with that pnds4.5m paid to Spurs for Pienaar has been easily offset by the pnds15m deal for Jack Rodwell. The only other signing, Steven Naismith, was a free agent. This is the reality of life at Everton yet, once again, this looks like a very competitive team.
United operate on another plain and last night there were debuts for Shinji Kagawa, worth pnds17m, and, eventually, Van Persie who came on for the last 20 minutes. On the bench, Ferguson could select Ashley Young and Dimitar Berbatov, still at the club and unused last night. It was in defence that his problems really started.
With Rio Ferdinand now out for up to a month, United looked decidedly makeshift at the back where Michael Carrick filled the gap alongside Nemanja Vidic. The England midfielder found himself dominated by Fellaini for the game’s only goal, headed in from Baines’ corner, and United missed his presence in the middle of the pitch where Paul Scholes struggled to exert influence.
With just ten minutes of the game gone, the overwhelming sense was United would have taken a point even then. Everton attacked them briskly and Fellaini, behind Nikica Jelavic, in the 4-4-1-1 formation was a problem that United never got close to solving.
By the 14th minute, Fellaini had turned Patrice Evra and Carrick and struck the post. By the 17th minute he had body-checked David De Gea at a corner with a challenge that had Ferguson out of his seat and flapping his arms around as he berated the fourth official.
There were two early bookings for United; one for Luis Nani and another for an embarrassingly savage challenge on Darron Gibson by Scholes which even the latter recognised he had to apologise for. Wayne Rooney, not treated with half as much hostility as he once was by this crowd, had few sights of goal on a very quiet night for him.
Last season, Everton lost four of their first seven league games including the opening match at home to Queens Park Rangers. This time it was different and the chances just kept coming. In the last 15 minutes of the first half, De Gea saved from Pienaar, Leon Osman and then a Baines free-kick which was deflected on its way through.
Baines was priced out of a transfer to United this summer and his chances of a move there now look to be over with Alexander Buttner of Vitesse Arnhem most likely to go to Old Trafford. Last night, the England left-back was excellent in defence and attack, certainly much more so than his opposite number, Evra.
After the break, Fellaini out-jumped the away team’s defence to head the ball down to Osman whose shot came off De Gea’s bar and bounced down and out. Then, before the hour, the home side deservedly, finally, took the lead.
It was Carrick’s job to mark Fellaini at corners although heaven knows why. Despite the danger posed by Distin and Jagielka, the latter of whom it was that Vidic picked up; the man of the moment was Fellaini. He should have been Vidic’s responsibility. When Baines’ corner came over on 57 minutes, the Belgium international flattened Carrick on his way to scoring.
Then at last, Ferguson called for Van Persie, sending him on in place of Danny Welbeck who had been a marginal figure at best on the right side of three attackers behind Rooney. Van Persie was deployed alongside Rooney as United switched to a more orthodox 4-4-2 that immediately made them look more effective.
Still, the best chance that United created was a ragged opportunity for Tom Cleverley which was brilliantly kicked off the line by Jagielka. Van Persie crossed another for Kagawa, that Howard closed down well. United lost on the opening day in 1992 and 1995 and went on to win the title. They can easily recover but then last night left much room for improvement.
Man of the match Fellaini.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee A Marriner (W Midlands).