Manchester United, who have been coughing and wheezing in pursuit of Newcastle all season, were given reason to believe their efforts are not in vain last night as they made significant ground on the Premiership leaders.
Goals from Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs carried them to a victory over weakened Everton that looked even more attractive given the perspective of events in East London. As the man on the Old Trafford PA system put it afterwards: "If you enjoyed that result, I think you might like the one from Upton Park."
The upshot of it is that United are hardly breathing down the necks of Newcastle, who are six points ahead having played a game fewer, but they are encouraged. For the first time this year, Newcastle feel just a scintilla of pressure on them.
"It was a game where the result was more important than the performance," Alex Ferguson, the United manager, said. "We were away from our best form. But it's been a good night for us."
As Ferguson indicated, this was a workmanlike rather than inspired United performance. They played in fits and starts, their flowing football an elusive quest. Indeed their night was best summed up by Giggs who implied threat with his runs rather than delivered until his 83rd-minute goal. Even then he delivered the coup de grace while others provided the inspiration in a thrilling move.
There were undercurrents to this game beyond the obvious. United were keen to inflict pain on the team who beat them in last May's FA Cup final, a need intensified by the appearance of a former colleague, Andrei Kanchelskis, in the opposition ranks.
The residue of resentment caused by his departure from Old Trafford last summer was apparent from the start, the Russian international winger being booed vigorously, a theme that would be returned to throughout. It would be nice to report this came from a mindless minority, in this case majority would be the appropriate word.
There was a lacing of irony, therefore, that Kanchelskis created the first chance of the game, his lightning pace taking him round Philip Neville and Keane in the 12th minute. His cross eluded Peter Schmeichel, too, but as Graham Stuart slid in, Denis Irwin stretched and the ball was deflected over the bar.
United created only glimmers for half an hour, Neville twice forcing Neville Southall into flying saves. With Eric Cantona there is always a threat, however, and as Everton began to look comfortable he delivered the killer pass. A series of one-twos carved through midfield and as the Everton rearguard was pulled apart by the movement in front of them the Frenchman slipped a delightful pass between Dave Watson and Jon O'Connor. The weight was perfect for Keane, who charged into the space and then chipped past Southall.
Everton, stinging from Joe Royle's criticism after their Cup defeat by Port Vale last week, gained parity after the interval without, as their manager put it, "having that little spark to create a proper chance". And as they came forward there was always the possibility United would profit from the space.
They did so gloriously, Cantona and Andy Cole sweeping the ball down field before the latter found Giggs 12 yards out. His finish, like United's night, could hardly have been sweeter.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Irwin, Bruce, Pallister, P Neville; Giggs, Butt, Keane, Sharpe (Beckham, 83); Cantona, Cole. Substitutes not used: G Neville, Scholes,.
Everton (4-4-1-1): Southall; O'Connor, Watson, Unsworth, Hinchcliffe; Grant (Branch, 72) Horne, Ebbrell, Stuart; Kanchelskis; Amokachi. Substitutes not used: Short, Kearton (gk).
Referee: M Bodenham (East Looe).Reuse content