Manchester United conceeded two very late Everton goals as David Moyes’ side came back from 3-1 down to snatch a draw at the death. Darren Fletcher, captain Nemanja Vidic and Dimitar Berbatov scored to seemingly seal United’s win on on Merseyside despite Wayne Rooney’s absence only to throw away the result in injury time.
Until the late Everton brace, United had offered a controlled performance in seeking to avenge the 3-1 loss at this ground last season but goals from Tim Cahill and Mikel Arteta in injury time sealed an unlikely point for the home side.
“Football can do that to you. We were in a comfortable position and we threw it away,” Ferguson told Sky Sports.
“Our last two away games have been like that. We lost a goal at Fulham and again today. We had four good chances to seal it and we didn’t take them. For the most part I was pleased with the performance but we’ve thrown it away today.
“We played some good football at times and I thought Berbatov was brilliant but that doesn’t matter if we throw it away. He is a great player, and again today he had some great moments.”
Rooney though will continue to make the headlines but for few of the reasons expected after Sir Alex Ferguson left the former Evertonian out of United’s squad at Goodison Park. With the furore over the striker’s private life dominating the build up Ferguson, citing Goodison crowd abuse, chose to protect Rooney against many expectations.
Ferguson has rarely shielded his players in such a fashion before; Paul Ince returned to Upton Park and Eric Cantona to Ellend Road, and Gary Neville cannot receive any more abuse that he earns at Anfield, for example. Indeed, it is tempting to conclude that the manager has laid down a marker to his star player. With the Red shirt comes a responsibility that Rooney’s (alleged) behaviour does not match.
Initially Rooney’s absence seemed to affect the Scot’s planning, with Ferguson selecting a 4-5-1 system for the first time this season; Berbatov deployed up-front on his own with support from Ryan Giggs and Nani on the flanks.
If the attempt to quell the Goodison crowd took some of the heat out of the fixture then Moyes’ side did its best to raise the home spirits by dominating the opening minutes. Everton, buoyed by a vociferous crowd, started well with United struggling to retain the ball in the opening minutes.
Initially, Berbatov, Giggs and Nani were unable to hold the ball up front as Everton created chances to take an early lead. But with no strikers on the pitch – Leon Osman and Tim Cahill provided an alternative attacking threat – the home side failed to convert chances into goals. It almost defined the match until Everton’s late double.
Eventually in Rooney’s absence, with two chances inside three minutes, United clawed its way back into the game. First the recalled Gary Neville’s long ball eventually fell to Berbatov who failed to convert the chance. Then John O’Shea, selected in central midfield, sweetly struck a half volley that hit the frame of the goal on the quarter-hour.
Nani confirmed he bleeds red, suffering a cut mouth in a challenge by Everton’s Steven Pienaar. All in the cause, with Nani showing the progression he has made in the past year by continually tracking back to offer Neville defensive support, even if early crosses from wide areas went astray.
Fletcher, all energy, offered United’s most attacking threat from central midfield. The Scot was the only of the Reds’ three to continually run ahead of the ball. It was the midfielder’s long run that almost fashioned a chance for Berbatov to open the scoring.
Everton remained a threat though, and the home side took the lead on the break just as United finally gained a foothold in the match. Arteta’s long run forced 39-year-old Edwin van der Sar to smartly save only for Pienaar to eventually slide home the rebound.
Then shortly before half-time Ferguson’s side was level, with Fletcher scoring from Nani’s wonderful cross. The Scot’s running from midfield again proving influential.
If the old adage that scoring just before half-time takes the wind out of the opposition sales, then United’s second just after the break deflated the crowd too. Such a simple goal, with Nani again crossing for the unmarked Vidic to head home from close range.
In two goals the Portuguese showed why he can both be a most effective but frustrating player; the brilliance matched earlier by two shanked crosses into the Goodison stands. The winger should perhaps have sealed United’s win just after the hour, with Berbatov’s break and pass opening up a chance for Nani to strike past Tim Howard in Everton’s net.
Nani’s scuffed finish would only matter later. First, Paul Scholes brilliantly found Berbatov with a raking cross-field pass and the Bulgarian hit the net with a sumptuous finish twenty minutes from time.
Then the dénouement as Everton scored twice in the final two minutes to snatch a late draw when the game should have been put to bed. Indeed, Berbatov and then Nani each had outstanding chances to put United into a surely unassailable 4-1 lead.
But for the second time this season the Reds threw away a lead in the final minutes as two crosses found Vidic, Jonny Evans and company wanting. On such details are titles won and lost.
United: van der Sar; Neville, Vidic, Evans, Evra (Park, 81); Nani, Scholes, O’Shea, Fletcher, Giggs.
Man-of-the-match: Dimitar Berbatov
Possession: Everton 46% – 54% United
Attempts: 23 – 13
On target: 14 – 8
Corners: 7 – 5
Fouls: 11 – 18