EVERTON FC failed to stage another memorable comeback at Old Trafford - as Sylvain Distin’s pre-game withdrawal contributed to the defensive woes which saw them lose 2-0 to Manchester United.
Unlike last season when the Blues staged a remarkable comeback to ultimately cost United the title, this time they arguably played their part in sealing the Red Devils’ early coronation as Champions.
Distin’s sudden absence meant a reprieve for John Heitinga, who had been dropped as Phil Neville returned to the side to make his 300th appearance in a blue shirt at the home of his first club, but in the end there was to be no sentimental afternoon for either Everton player.
The hosts set the pace quickly, causing Everton’s freshly re-calibrated defence problems as Wayne Rooney bent a right footed shot past the post from outside the penalty area, and a marauding Patrice Evra gave Steven Pienaar a few uneasy moments on the left flank.
David Moyes had initially asked his South African playmaker to operate on the right side of midfield instead of his usual left-sided role, presumably to give Kevin Mirallas a chance to torment United’s defensively suspect full-back Rafael. Instead the Brazilian looked competent and lively going forward, underlining perhaps that it was to be one of those days.
Mirallas and Pienaar eventually returned to their normal roles, however the Blues did little attacking in the first 15 minutes, when United continued to pour forward and take advantage of a nervy visiting back line.
The presence of Robin Van Persie in attack was one reason for those Evertonian jitters, but the Dutchman’s usually predatory instinct abandoned him when he was put through on goal by Rooney with Tim Howard beaten, only to clip the post when he seemed certain to score.
Unfortunately it didn’t take long for Everton’s rear-guard to buckle. Antonio Valencia nodded on a long ball and Van Persie brushed easily past Heitinga to tee-up Ryan Giggs who squeezed his shot in off the post.
Already confident, United started to swagger; Rooney dropping deep and dictating the play as Everton’s midfield started to be pulled all over the pitch.
The Toffees weren’t entirely cowed though. Leon Osman forced a diving save from David De Gea with a dipping left-footed effort from 20 yards, and from the resulting corner Mirallas and Darron Gibson had shots blocked. Then Victor Anichebe tried manfully to turn Nemanja Vidic in the same powerful way he did Aston Villa’s Ciaran Clark last weekend, and he nearly profited until Rafael darted in to clear.
A defiant flurry became a concerted spell of pressure for Everton, as Fellaini escaped the shackles of Phil Jones almost score with a header which brought another decisive save from De Gea.
But the Blues still looked decidedly vulnerable at the back, and so it proved. Rafael was allowed to meander into midfield and played a defence splitting pass to Van Persie who, with Phil Neville playing him onside, rounded Howard and scored. He was not to be denied twice.
With just minutes before the interval it was a crushing time to concede a second goal, especially after Everton had responded so brightly to their initial setback.
Moyes resisted the urge to change things at half time, but it wasn’t long after play resumed when Anichebe limped off to be replaced by Nikica Jelavic. The away fans had already been chanting the Croatian’s name for some time.
If there was to be an instant response however, it looked more likely to come from United. Johnny Evans forced a magnificent double save from Howard, who denied the defender with his hands and then feet after he threatened from a corner. Then the Blues goalkeeper excelled himself again, this time tipping Tom Cleverley’s scorching strike over the bar.
Thwarted in their attempts to conjure-up a drubbing, United settled on containment with their lead seemingly comfortable. For Everton there was to be no fight-back this time.
Van Persie went close again after fine interplay with Giggs, and while Jelavic tested De Gea in response at the other end United were unyielding.
The Blues limped to a tepid conclusion, and remain six points off that coveted fourth spot.
MANCHESTER UNITED: (4-4-1-1) De Gea, Rafael, Evans (Smalling, 81) Vidic (Capt), Evra, Valencia, Jones (Carrick, 57) Cleverly, Giggs, Van Persie, Rooney.
Subs not used: Amos, Anderson, Hernandez, Nani, Welbeck.
Goals: Giggs (14)
EVERTON: (4-2-3-1) Howard, Neville (Capt), Jagielka, Distin, Baines, Gibson, Osman, Fellaini, Pienaar, Mirallas (Naismith, 69), Anichebe (Jelavic, 58).
Subs not used: Mucha, Oviedo, Heitinga, Stones, Hitzlsperger.
Bookings: Mirallas, Fellaini
Referee: Mark Halsey