Jose Mourinho described Manchester United’s visit to the Bernabeu on Wednesday night as “the game the world is waiting for” but in the meantime the world had to make do with Everton, although not the same kind of Everton that upset the applecart at Old Trafford last season.
It was asking too much for this game to be as thrilling as the 4-4 draw in April, last season, when United twice squandered a two-goal lead and eventually had to acknowledge that it was the day when the title started to slide away from them. Even so, taking a 12-point lead in the title race was never supposed to be as easy as this.
Sitting in the directors’ box, wrapped up against the cold and trying not to catch the eye of the hordes gawping at him, Mourinho watched a United side comfortably contain an Everton team that had none of the attacking menace of ten months ago. Even this United defence, with Rio Ferdinand rested and David De Gea never completely certain in dealing with Leighton Baines’ dipping crosses, was not unduly troubled.
Is that it for the title, then? Yes, according to Kevin Keegan, who was the Newcastle United manager when they blew a 12-point lead over Manchester United in 1996 – he said it would be over if United won yesterday. So too the usual publicity-seeking bookies, who are paying out on United already. Even Sir Alex Ferguson said that he had changed his team in the light of Manchester City’s collapse at Southampton on Saturday.
Having promised on Friday to play “two different teams” in yesterday’s game and then against Real Madrid on Wednesday, Ferguson claimed after the match that he had scrapped that plan following City’s defeat and played a stronger team to press home his club’s advantage at the top of the league.
All things considered it seemed a strange explanation given that he might just have likely decided that he could have afforded to play a weaker side yesterday. He made four changes and detailed Phil Jones to do an old school man-to-man marking job on Marouane Fellaini. Jones limped off before the end and he is a doubt for Wednesday but it begs the question, would Ferguson ask him to do a similar job on Cristiano Ronaldo?
There was the usual bonhomie about Mourinho, who had gone to see Ferguson before the game and was allowed to enter the stadium through the players’ entrance rather than have to brave the punters and come in through the directors’ entrance in the South Stand. Mourinho granted his only interview of the day to MUTV. You could see a beautiful relationship blossoming.
As well as all the usual stuff about the prospect of Wednesday’s game, Ferguson said simply that he hoped United would be able “to get the team we want out on the pitch”. There are concerns over Jones, and Jonny Evans came off with a touch of cramp, but otherwise, whatever can he mean? He has all his big guns ready to go.
Until Robin Van Persie scored United’s second goal, in time added on at the end of the first half, Everton’s threat remained. They beat United 1-0 at Goodison Park on the first day of the season and, even having lost Sylvain Distin, who was unwell, half an hour before kick-off, there is enough experience in this Everton side not to be intimidated by United. The problem is, there was simply not the goal threat.
David Moyes’ team have won just one of their last five league games and the manager admitted yesterday that the fatigue may well be setting in as the likes of Baines, Steven Pienaar and Leon Osman rack up the games without any scope to rest them. “Maybe it only allows us to have one half of the season,” he said. “I hope I’m wrong.”
For the first goal it was Baines who lost a crucial header to Antonio Valencia in the build-up. Johnny Heitinga failed to get close enough to Van Persie, allowing the striker to get away from in the box and cut the ball back to Ryan Giggs who had enough time to pick his spot, in off the inside of Tim Howard’s left post. It is the 23rd consecutive season in which Giggs has scored in the top-flight of English football.
That was after 13 minutes, and Everton’s best moments were in the latter part of the first half when De Gea saved well from Osman and Rafael Da Silva, United’s best player, got the ball away from Victor Anichebe in the nick of time. Then Van Persie killed the game by taking Rafael’s smart throughball past Howard and getting the ball in past Heitinga as the Everton player slid in on the line.
From much the same position, Van Persie had hit the post on ten minutes but once again he gave United that extra dimension of quality at a critical point of the game. After the break, Everton did not look nearly so much of a threat with the away fans finally getting their wish with Nikica Jelavic’s introduction. United went closer on 66 minutes when Howard saved three times from close-range in the penalty area and then from Tom Cleverley’s shot.
Moyes said afterwards that at the beginning of the season he would happily have taken three points from the two fixtures with United and it was hard to argue with him. As for United, they leave Manchester tomorrow with a huge European game in prospect and their neighbours, and title rivals, approaching meltdown. Which is just the way United like it.