SYLVAIN Distin may have been taken ill before kick-off, but after a demoralising 90 minutes at Old Trafford he wasn’t the only one with Everton connections feeling queasy.
The moment the French defender was ruled out during yesterday’s warm-up, bookies with more than a passing knowledge of Everton’s defensive woes this season might have instantly furthered the odds for a first win on Manchester United’s home turf in 20 years.
Fresh from his error-strewn display against Aston Villa, John Heitinga re-entered the fray and failed to find much in the way of redemption.
The Dutch defender could have done better to prevent United’s opening goal – but in the end it wasn’t his fault that the Blues lost their fourth game of the season.
There’s a growing concern that Everton’s strong first half of the campaign has taken too heavy a toll on such a small squad. Where in the past things have only got going when the campaign has reached its half-way point, this time the reverse is threatening to happen. Ultimately the grim conclusion might be that David Moyes’ group of players only has the depth to sustain top four form for half a season.
That’s the current fear, and it wasn't eased by the manner in which Everton were second best for most of a difficult afternoon, even if they did enjoy promising spells against the Champions elect during the first half.
Kevin Mirallas said his fitness to start was partly thanks to German specialist Dr Hans Muller-Wohlfhart, who injects patients with the extract from a cockerel’s crest and has also used calves blood to get players back to their best. Let’s hope Mirallas asked ‘Healing Hans’ for a few vials to share with his team-mates.
The transfer window failed to provide them with much of a boost in terms of fresh legs, so Moyes is going to have to find another way to prevent limbs from flagging and the gap between his side and fourth-placed Spurs creeping inexorably wider.
That’s what is currently happening, as Gareth Bale hauls the Londoners through games aided by a defence which is looking mean and imperious compared to Everton’s which is creaking when Moyes is without his first choice personnel.
It wasn’t only at the back where Everton seemed to be lacking. Comparing any side to United, who are already 12 points clear at the top, might be harsh but expectations remain heightened on the Blue side of Merseyside and the Blues have already beaten the Red Devils back in August. This time though, Alex Ferguson had no intentions of letting Marouane Fellaini run riot.
Phil Jones was tasked with sticking close to the Belgian and managed to do so admirably, sapping his impact, while United were quick to press and harry Everton’s left-sided axis.
The tone was set early, with the hosts quickly causing problems for that freshly re-calibrated Everton defence 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.
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 usually suspect full-back Rafael Da Silva.
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 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 rearguard to buckle. Antonio Valencia nodded on a long ball and Van Persie brushed 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 his 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 momentarily escaped the shackles of Jones to 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.
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 fightback on a par with last April’s stirring 4-4 blockbuster.
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. The gap hasn’t been that big in a long time, and Everton are still far from finished.
But they’ll need to find a way to re-energise themselves fast.