United miss guile of injured Rio more than goals of absent striker

Everton 3 Manchester United 3
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The Independent Football

When it came to analysing how three points became one for Manchester United when Everton scored twice during the additional period formerly known by the wry colloquialism of Fergie Time, the absence of Wayne Rooney was not so much a red herring as a whole shoal of them.

What cost United dear, and which will have encouraged the spies from Rangers ahead of tomorrow's Champions League opener at Old Trafford, was their fallibility at full-back, failures of concentration in central defence and over-reliance in midfield on two players closer to 40 than 30.

Everything, in fact, bar the side of their game to which Rooney is integral. The missing striker did, of course, play at Fulham, where United were held in similar circumstances. Mike Phelan said on Saturday that Rooney "wasn't ready to play" but Sir Alex Ferguson suggested he would reappear against Rangers, raising the question of whether Dimitar Berbatov, whom he hailed as "brilliant" in the lone attacker's role at Goodison Park, would partner Rooney in a 4-4-2 formation or make way for him in a 4-5-1.

However, one suspects that the player whose return the United manager awaits more eagerly is Rio Ferdinand. England's World Cup captain that never was is ready for his first outing since May after recovering from knee surgery. Ferguson, having watched Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans switch off as Tim Cahill's heading prowess brought him one goal and led to Mikel Arteta's deflected equaliser, will look to him to restore order where there was belated chaos.

Vidic struggles against pace and Evans is vulnerable in the air. Add those factors to the waning of Gary Neville's powers, an out-of-sorts display by Patrice Evra and the lack of a designated midfield shield in the mould of Owen Hargreaves or Michael Carrick, and the shock value resided in the timing of Everton's recovery rather than the fact that it had happened.

At 3-2, and with 120 seconds remaining, Neville relinquished possession when United should have been looking to keep the ball, preferably in a corner, rather than inviting Everton forward. Ferguson's engine room, in which John O'Shea resembled a red herring out of water, by that stage comprised Giggs and Scholes, making one wonder whether the deployment of energetic substitutes might have been judicious.

The glass half-full faction among United fans will note that a point from both Everton and Fulham is more than they gained at either last season. The half-empty lobby will see Chelsea four points clear already and recall last year's expensive early lapse against Burnley.

For Everton, who led through Steven Pienaar, looked a beaten side as Darren Fletcher, Vidic and the deceptively languid Berbatov struck, it felt as if the glass was overflowing after their late flurry. Defeat would have meant their worst start since 1994, yet David Moyes argued that if it ended 3-1, "I'd still have said we didn't deserve to be on the end of a defeat".

The Everton boss added candidly: "Obviously we're a little short in some areas of being right at the top. But we've got a good team and we'll give a game to anyone wherever we go. What the players are doing is right but we're just not quite getting the results to go with it. I haven't felt we needed a turning point from the way we've played."

While Ferguson is notorious for studying his watch and glaring at referees, here it was his opposite number who felt indignant about the timekeeping. Everton were pressing for an implausible winner when Martin Atkinson invoked the mean spirit of Clive Thomas by signalling an end to the drama. Moyes, who argued that two stoppage-time goals should have led to more time being added, confronted the official at the end.

"I just told him it was the wrong decision for football," the Scot said, politely omitting to point out that it was Mr Atkinson who allowed seven minutes' added time in April's Manchester derby, during which Scholes hit the winner. "You can't always say nothing. If you feel there's been an injustice you have to be able to air your views. But you [the press] should be talking about a terrific game, not doing pieces on me."

Or, he might have added, about Rooney.

Match facts

Everton 4-4-1-1: Howard; Hibbert (Coleman, 69), Jagielka, Distin, Baines; Osman, Arteta, Heitinga (Yakubu, 69), Pienaar; Fellaini; Cahill. Substitutes not used Mucha (gk), Bilyaletdinov, Beckford, P Neville, Gueye.

Manchester United 4-5-1: Van der Sar; G Neville, Vidic, Evans, Evra (Park, 80); Nani, Fletcher, Scholes, O'Shea, Giggs; Berbatov. Substitutes not used Kuszczak (gk), Owen, Smalling, Rafael, Macheda, Gibson.

Booked Everton Heitinga Manchester United Giggs.

Man of the match Berbatov.

Possession Everton 46% Manchester United 54%.

Shots on target Everton 14 Manchester United 8 Referee M Atkinson (W Yorks). Attendance 36,556

Match rating 9/10