Manchester United blew 3-1 and 4-2 leads against a resilient Everton side which has thrown the title race wide open once again. Steven Pienaar’s late equaliser left the red half of Manchester shocked and frustrated. It was a blow to Uniteds title hopes, but it’s still ours to lose.
United began the game in rather sloppy style, where as Everton started with purpose and belief. It was indeed Everton who looked most likely to take the lead. Osman and Jelavic both came close early on before United had really gotten started.
While Everton looked dangerous going forward, United were struggling to get a foot hold in the game. Everton pressing high up the pitch left The Reds with little time on the ball and stifled their natural passing game. In recent weeks it has been Antonio Valencia who has been the United catalyst. Today, however, it was Nani, in the side in place of Ashley Young and Fergusons only change from the previous game, who looked most likely to unlock a well organised Everton team.
It was Nani who came closest to giving United the lead, but when he twice cut in from the left to fire at goal his shots went tamely wide and straight at Tim Howard. A Wayne Rooney header should have tested the Everton keeper, but under pressure he directed his effort wide. None the less United looked to be getting themselves into more promising positions.
This may have been the case, but with Fellaini playing high up the pitch and Jelavic finding himself with space Everton had more than a small level of threat. So when an excellent Tony Hibbert cross found Jelavic, who had dropped of Rafael, who had switched off and had gotten sucked into the middle a little, it was no surprise to see Everton take the lead in the 33rd minute. Even though Jelavic had made himself some space he still had lots to do. Brilliantly he looped his header over David De Gea, who had no chance, and the ball nestled into the side of the net.
From a certain point of view, Everton taking the lead was a blessing in disguise. United finally woke up and had a tempo and urgency to their game. Putting Everton under constant pressure at last. Paul Scholes was unlucky not to have equalised when the ball broke to him after a corner, his shot took a number of deflections before falling kindly for Tim Howard. United then had a good shout for a penalty turned down. Rafael tried to turn his man but had his legs taken from him. Maybe the referee had believed it was a fair challenge, but more likely he was swayed by elements in the media picking up on Ashley Young’s previous antics.
A goal before half time was important and the momentum United were building paid off in the 41st minute. Nani, again coming in off the left wing, swung a ball into the box where Wayne Rooneys run was not tracked and his diving header pulled United level before the break.
What was to come in the second is scarcely believable. United came out of the blocks with a single mind, to carry on in the way they left the pitch at the half time whistle. The Champions were now playing some beautiful football, Rooney and Welbeck linking up in a way reminiscent to Yolke and Cole.
Welbeck was working hard as usual but wasn’t quite getting the run of the ball. However, in the 57th minute he found himself with the ball centrally on the edge of the box. A little faint allowed him space which gave him time to perfectly curl a ball into the top corner and give United a deserved lead.
Tails were up now and just 4 minutes later United found themselves 3-1 up. Again, beautiful play around the penalty area saw a lovely pass from Welbeck put Nani one on one with Tim Howard. With a cool head, waiting for Howard to commit, Nani lifted the ball over the keeper to increase the lead.
You would maybe have expected United to sit now that they had a cushion, but given they way they were attacking there was no thought of it. This did leave the game slightly stretched and when Tony Hibbert again put in a dangerous ball Fellaini drifted away from Johnny Evans to hit a volley past De Gea. It was a brilliant finish but there are question marks over the space he was allowed.
With the game back on, and Everton showing no signs of giving up, United dusted themselves down and went back to business. The Everton goal did not change the way the Reds played. Free flowing football, with intricate passing. No question United were capable of increasing their lead once again.
United did increase their lead. Just 3 minutes after being pegged back to 3-2 Rooney and Welbeck linked up again with excellent one touch football. Rooney turned a ball into his feet around the corner to exploit the space behind the Everton back four, Welbeck got on to the end of it a squared a ball back to Rooney who was in acres of space in the middle of the box to easily slot home.
At 4-2 United would have normally shut up shop with the job done with 20 minutes remaining. I, along with just about everyone else, was urging United to keep going forward and turn the result into a rout. The football that was being played was superb from United and the players had the same ambition as the fans.
Chances continued to be carved and Everton were offering very little to worry United. But, as at 3-1, the game was stretched. United continued to flow forward but when it broke down Everton would look to push forward themselves. But as I said, Everton attacks lacked that final ball to worry Ferdinand and Co.
Football is a funny old game though, and it only takes a few minutes to change the momentum and the result. This was to be the case today. A 2 minute spell today saw the game go from a comfortable United victory to a nervy finish, and ultimately a shocking result. If Patrice Evra had been able to convert his header in, rather than onto the post, it would have been 5-2 and all over. It was a difficult chance, running in late and diving to meet the Rafael cross. Everton though, 2 minutes later broke and a ball delived into the United box saw a poor clearance land to Jelavic, alone and unmarked in the box, to steer home.
United were rattled and and at sixes and sevens. But when Steven Pienaar found himself free just 7 yards out to equalise it was a shock. Rafael for some reason had stopped his run into the box alongside Pienaar to allow the space for the shot once Fellaini had pulled the ball back. If Rafael had continued to track Pienaar he would have likely not have received the ball.
Ferguson introduced Phil Jones for Paul Scholes in order to sure up the midfield. However, Everton now full of confidence and intensity pressed hard and without Scholes United found it hard to retain possession. Hernandez was also brought on, but with 5 minutes of injury time to be played it was surprising that it was Valencia who he replaced.
In typical United fashion, they composed themselves for a final injury time onslaught. It was not to be, Rio Ferdinand the only person to have a chance to rescue the 3 points. His fierce left foot shot though produced an excellent save from Howard. With that went the game.
The football, going forward, from United today was sublime in the second half. The goals which we scored were excellent. But as Sir Alex Ferguson said, “it was defensive lapses which cost us today.”
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