EVERTON were denied any rewards for a hard-working display as they were sunk by an 84th minute Javier Hernandez header to propel Manchester United’s title bid.
The defeat means the Toffee’s winless stretch at Old Trafford grinds inexorably on – with 19 years and counting – as David Moyes’s men eventually succumbed to almost constant pressure from the Premier League leaders.
Everton seemed to have weathered the storm, thanks to some superlative defending from their back four, but Alex Ferguson’s side created so many chances that a goal seemed inevitable in the second half.
The Blues were fortunate in the extreme not to concede in a poor first period, and survived only thanks to heroic defending and poor finishing from the home side.
Moyes’ men were losing the midfield tussle, surrendering possession too easily and failing to offer anything on the break.
The chances against them stacked up ominously. Anderson was revelling in midfield, displaying a mouth watering array of passing, to first set up Javier Hernandez who tested Howard from an acute angle.
Then Wayne Rooney carried the ball forward at pace and played in Nani, but the winger delayed too long and eventually opted to shoot when better placed to cross.
Again United should have been ahead minutes later after a wonderful move of one touch passing saw Rooney stroke a deft ball into Hernandez’s feet only for Howard to pull of a stunning reflex save.
Everton were under almost constant pressure throughout the half but fortunately Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin seemed in stoic mood.
Despite their defiance, it was only good fortune that prevented Nani scoring near the break, when Antonio Valenica beat Leighton Baines for pace and cut the ball across to the Portuguese whose goal bound shot was diverted wide by Hernandez.
Changes were inevitable at half time, and Tim Cahill made his return to first team action for the first time since March 18 at the expense of Bily, as Victor Anichebe replaced Beckford.
The reshuffle energised Everton and gave them a belated slither of possession and attacking intent. Indeed the Blues were denied a credible penalty claim when Rio Ferdinand appeared to shove Anichebe over as he burst into the penalty area.
But largely the Toffees still had to rely on the gargantuan efforts of Distin and Jagielka to keep United out.
Jack Rodwell had struggled to make any impression, but could have given Everton the lead against the run of play with 20 minutes left when he forced a stunning save from Van der Saar with his deflected shot from long range.
Alex Ferguson’s side had let their tempo drop and started to allow the visitors more time on the ball, and frustration gradually began to seep into their play.
Buoyed by their ray of hope, Moyes’ side seized momentum and began to offer more at last.
Still, Michael Owen hit a post and went close again shortly afterwards – but time and time again Everton’s ten men behind the ball left the Red Devils frustrated.
Wayne Rooney tested Howard with a curling free kick and then drilled another wide, but the Blues were resolutely stubborn.
Even when a goal seemed certain, Everton’s American goalkeeper denied Hernandez by tipping his point blank header over the bar.
In his technical area, Ferguson crumpled with exasperation. Eventually though, with grim inevitability, the royal blue resilience faltered; Valencia beat Distin for pace for the first time all afternoon and whipped a deep cross into the area for Hernandez to head home.
Referee Peter Walton added five minutes of injury time on, but the Blues were long since out of ideas and energy.
EVERTON: (4-4-1-1) Howard, Hibbert, Distin, Jagielka, Baines, Rodwell, Neville (capt), Bilyaletdinov (Cahill, 45) Coleman (Gueye, 75), Osman, Beckford (Anichebe, 45).
Subs not used: Mucha, Vellios, Mustafi, Duffy.
MANCHESTER UNITED: (4-4-1-1) Van de Saar, Da Silva, Ferdinand (capt), Evans, O’Shea, (Evra, 56) Anderson, Nani (Owen, 63) Gibson (Giggs, 75), Valencia, Rooney, Hernandez.
Subs not used: Brown, Carrick, Rafael, Kuszczak.
Goals: Hernandez (84)
Referee: Peter Walton