David Beckham – the real thing rather than the Alistair McGowan version of which we have seen rather more lately – enjoyed a stunning cameo role to help Manchester United to a 12th victory over Everton in a 13-match unbeaten sequence which stretches back to the FA Cup final of 1995.
Coming off the bench with barely a third of the match remaining, Beckham produced what Sir Alex Ferguson hailed as "a magnificent cross" for Ryan Giggs to open the scoring after 78 minutes. Seven minutes later, Giggs turned provider for Ruud van Nistelrooy to seal United's fourth successive Premiership victory and keep them within six points of the leaders.
Beckham last started a game on 1 December, since when the champions have hit a four-match winning streak. Yet the England captain's appetite showed no sign of having been diminished at Goodison Park, as evinced by his confidence to keep trying passes that no one else on the pitch, Juan Veron included, could even envisage.
The spectacle had been crying out for an individual of Beckham's ability to impose his skill and vision. In assessing Everton's performance, their manager, Walter Smith, put his finger on the prosaic nature of much of the contest. "We worked hard but we tired towards the end," he said. "They got a bit more room and, with the quality of players they have, they used that. When we had our best spells we lacked a cutting edge."
Ferguson again declined to share his views with the press but told a television interviewer it would still take "a momentous run" for United to retain the title. There was, as ever, an element of kidology in his remarks, but they will certainly have to play better than they did for an hour here.
Considering that Everton had lost three of their previous four fixtures, exchanges were surprisingly even until Ferguson reshaped his midfield with the introduction of Beckham. The home side lost Thomas Gravesen to injury early on, though the appearance of Joe-Max Moore to partner Tomasz Radzinski in place of the Dane provided a better balance.
Everton had not only started with a midfielder up front but with a defender, David Unsworth, in midfield. Unsworth was seldom embarrassed by Roy Keane and company, while Scot Gemmill was perpetual motion personified, combining attacking surges with exemplary tracking back.
Competitive as Everton were, though, creativity continues to be their weakest suit. Ferguson's former winger Jesper Blomqvist, making his first start since playing for United in the 1999 European Cup final, worked hard without supplying a telling cross. Their main ploy was the ball into the channels which might exploit Radzinski's pace.
It never worked better than in the 10th minute. Gemmill, who moments earlier had forced Fabien Barthez into an unorthodox save with a 25-yard drive, released Radzinski for a run which ended with Laurent Blanc almost diverting the Canadian's pass into his own net. When United failed to clear the corner, Unsworth dragged a free shot wide from only six yards.
United carried less threat than their recent form suggested until the arrival of Beckham and Veron's switch infield signalled an increase in the tempo during the final half-hour. Mikael Silvestre had headed over when well placed, while a Giggs centre coaxed only a scuffed shot on the turn from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer which Steve Simonsen saved.
Van Nistelrooy was adamant that Abel Xavier's fingers got the faintest of touches as the Dutchman sought to head in a Giggs cross before half-time. Then, midway through the second half, a Gemmill volley struck Gary Neville on the arm. On each occasion, Uriah Rennie called the situation correctly.
Everton's resistance finally ended when Beckham flighted a ball from the right that was just too far for Simonsen to consider coming for but which Giggs soared to glance home like an old-style centre-forward.
The second goal started with a Fabien Barthez throw being headed on by Solskjaer for Giggs to run at Gary Naysmith. The Welshman's cross was allowed to reach the far post, where Van Nistelrooy's first-time shot brought his 17th goal in 21 starts.
Everton (4-4-2): Simonsen 6; Watson 6, Xavier 7, Weir 7, Naysmith 6; Alexandersson 5 (Gascoigne, 82), Gemmill 7, Unsworth 6, Blomqvist 5 (Ferguson 4, 73); Gravesen (Moore 4, 8), Radzinski 5. Substitutes not used: Tal, Gerrard (gk).
Manchester United (4-4-2): Barthez 6; P Neville 6, Blanc 5, G Neville 6, Silvestre 5; Veron 7, Keane 6, Butt 5 (Beckham 7, 56), Giggs 7; Van Nistelrooy 6, Solskjaer 5. Substitutes not used: Irwin, Yorke, Wallwork, Carroll (gk).
Referee: U Rennie (Sheffield) 7.Reuse content