30th April 2012. This is the date that many pointed to, not long after the New Year had been brought in, as the date in which the side worthy of the title of Champions, would be crowned as such or at least begin to look ever more likely. This is the date of the Manchester derby, taking place at the Etihad stadium and while it may be that there will not be a confirmation of League Champions that day, the fixture could certainly have a significant and defining effect on where the Premier League trophy may end up come the end of the season. At midday, the scenario of a side winning the title at the Etihad was a distinct possibility. Fast forward six hours, and the situation is not quite as people expected, although still laying huge importance on next Monday’s occasion.
Manchester United took the lunchtime kick off, hosting Everton, with Manchester City due to play Wolves later in the day. The objective was clear, win and gain all three points, at least maintaining the five point gap at the top of the table. Sir Alex Ferguson selected a strong side to line up against David Moyes’ men, with David De Gea starting in goal, with Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand in front of him, with Patrice Evra and Rafael Da Silva occupying the left and right sides respectively. In midfield, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick were central partners, with Nani and Valencia out on the wings. Up front, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck were leading the attack.
The first half kicked off with Everton looking to unsettle the home side and were rather successful at it. Initially it was the visitors that created the most threat, causing problems for the back line early on and finding themselves with opportunities that, much to the relief of the fans, came to nothing. United began to settle down after the initial exchanges, able to get forward themselves, with Nani showing the most promise of producing a goal in the opening quarter of an hour. That said, Everton continued to cause problems, able to cause disruption in midfield that meant passes were going astray and Ferguson’s men failed to gain a solid footing on proceedings. For the first half an hour, the away side were arguably the better one and this paid off for them.
33 minutes into the game, after Nani’s play on the left had not been fruitful, Everton got forward, Hibbert looped in a delivery that met an unmarked Jelavic at the far post, who lobbed a header over De Gea, slowly looping over him to float in at the far post from the tightest of angles. 0-1 and the pressure suddenly felt at Old Trafford. United tried to respond immediately, with Scholes producing some good play and Rafael having his penalty appeal waved away minutes later.However, 8 minutes after going behind, United brought themselves back level before half time, after Nani delivered a well placed cross for Wayne Rooney to head home well between two defenders. 1-1 and all to play for as half time was signalled and both managers departed the field with their own complaints regarding the decisions made.
The second half kicked off with the game just as open as it had ended, with both sets of players looking to get forward and neither showing themselves up to be dominant. 57 minutes in United take the lead in spectacular fashion, albeit with a touch of controversy. With a cross coming in Nani headed the ball down to the feet of Welbeck, who was given a little too much space as he took a touch and curled a right footed effort from around the edge of the box into the top corner, leaving Tim Howard no chance and lifting the atmosphere tremendously. 4 minutes later, and the assistant turns scorer as Nani was played in to the box and calmly chipped over an emerging Howard to give his side a 3-1 lead and begin to make the afternoon look rather more comfortable.
However, if it was expected that Everton would simply lay down and see the game out, those expectations were misplaced, as the visitors found themselves with a way back into the game 8 minutes later, as Fellaini finished in dramatic fashion from Hibbert’s delivery. 3-2 and game on. More drama, as 4 minutes after that, wonderful link up play between Welbeck and Rooney allowed Rooney into to space in the box to finish swiftly low into the corner. 4-2, and the game finally put to bed?
Despite the more comfortable lead, and a roller-coaster of emotions in a dramatic match up, the game was still being played openly, with Everton continuing to search for a way back into the game once again. 7 minutres to go and their resilience was made to count, as Jelavic was able to get a volley off from Ferdinand’s header and provide a tense finish. 2 minutes later and their comeback was complete, as Fellaini played in Pienaar in plenty of space, who finished calmly and notch up a goal for an almost unbelievable scoreline of 4-4. United, shellshocked, tried to get forward and came close in the closing moments of the game as Howard saved from Ferdinand, but it was not to be as the game finished 4-4. A lead thrown away and the League is once again a far more tense affair. With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) Everton responded to their FA Cup disappointment
For all the aspects of the match that could be laid at the feet of the Manchester United players, one things that must be said and acknowledged, is that Everton were worthy of their draw, and a point was the least that they deserved from the fixture. In truth a draw was probably a fair result given the statistics and the way in which the visitors set about playing at Old Trafford. Throughout the match they looked to disrupt the midfield and found themselves getting forward regularly. It was so accident that they matched United for shots on target bar the one shot, and possession was not hugely one sided either. They started off the better side and it was not until the first goal went in that United suddenly stepped up a gear. As well as this, at 3-1, despite United looking comfortable, they found a way through and Fellaini finished well to make fans a little more nervous about the match. Even when United pulled ahead again at 4-2, am open game of football was still being played and the away side refused to let their heads drop, getting forward well and threatening, particularly on the break. The fact that United kept playing up to this allowed them to continue to create and produce two good finishes to draw level and leave the home fans and players somewhat shocked at what had just been seen. Everton stuck to a game plan throughout deserve credit for the character they showed in exploiting United’s failings on the day.
2) Refereeing consistency?
After the game, it was easy to see why both managers had reason to feel aggrieved with some of the refereeing decisions. David Moyes in particular had reason to question certain decisions as a matter of consistency. In the first half, play had been stopped after Evans went down under a tackle. Although the tackle was not wild, and indeed the ball was won, but Evans was caught and thus needed treatment. For this, play was stopped despite the fact play should not actually be brought to a halt unless a head injury is caused. Second half, and Osman goes down in the build up to Welbeck’s goal. By the rules, the referee would have been correct in not stopping play, but given the fact play was stopped in the first half, Moyes would have been right to complain at the lack of consistency in those decisions. Ferguson’s gripe was the tackle on Rafael in which one might have thought initially to be inside the box, and although should have been given as a foul, replays showed that a free kick, rather than a penalty would have been the correct decision.
3) Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney – Partnership potential?
When United took back their two goal advantage to make it 4-2, the immediate reaction of fans and observers alike was “play reminiscent of Yorke and Cole”. Indeed, the link up play between the two strikers was extremely easy on the eye and proved productive as Rooney was played in to finish. In fact this was the first of such play between the two since they began playing together in the first team. It could perhaps signal the beginning of a productive partnership between the two, particularly if Welbeck begins to see more regularity in his starting role in the side. In truth, one could argue more for Welbeck seeing more game time than Hernandez. In his first real season in the United first team, he has shown extra qualities that have been welcome in the line up, he appears more active in play than Hernandez who looks to poach goals more, which has it’s advantages but can be problematic when United found themselves pegged back for much of the game.
4) Little complaint with the attacking display
For all the frustration that the result provided, one must still find some positive within the match itself. In this case, that was the attacking display. In an open game, even when United were second best in the first half, they were able to get forward and create chances. Although at times giving the ball away cheaply, especially in midfield, some of the play between players up front was some of the best that had been seen in recent weeks. There was plenty of creativity and the play leading up to the goals was slick and well manoeuvred. Welbeck, Nani and Rooney were particularly impressive as they combined well to show the most threat for the home side. Perhaps the only thing they were guilty of is the side as a whole pushed too far forward in the latter stages of the game which ultimately contributed to their downfall. Welbeck deserves particular praise for his performance, active throughout the game he was involved in play when it mattered most, and capped his performance with a beautifully placed strike early in the second half.
5) The defensive display and a failure to close out the game
As mentioned earlier, even after United had gone 4-2 up, Everton refused to let their heads dropped and carried on, with their efforts rewarded late on. Prior to Jelavic netting his second goal, there was an instant where the ball was played in and the resulting delivery found Evra at the far post who’s diving header rattled the post. From this Everton got forward, exploiting the lack of defensive cover and got themselves a goal to bring the game back to 4-3. How different it would have been had it been made 5-2. The question that ought to be put forward is why it was that both Evra and Rafael were so far forward at the time anyway. At 2 goals up, with under 10 minutes to play, one would have thought United would try to slow the game down, play at a pace that would allow them to see the game out and come away with all 3 points. Instead, they continued to play at the pace that Everton were looking for, continuing to play an open game that gave them the opportunity to find a way back in. There simply should have been more cover at the back at 4-2, and although Evra and Rafael do look to get forward regularly, this aspect left United exposed late on in the game when Everton were trying to find a way back in. At this point in time, it was almost as if they were playing ahead of the wingers.
Of course responsibility for the goals does not simply lie at the feet of Evra and Rafael. Centrally, Everton were allowed space by Evans and Ferdinand for their efforts. Fellaini’s goal was an example of the space allowed, with Fellaini finding plenty of room on the volley to finish, an opportunity which he certainly took well. For all the creativity going forward, United were fairly disorganised when defending, after a run of games in which there appeared to be more solidity, and the inability to see the game through effectively is something that will have left Sir Alex Ferguson disappointed.
In summary, Everton deserve full credit for the way in which they continued to fight and get themselves back into contention after falling 2 goals behind. But for Manchester United, it is a case of 2 points dropped, a case of victory thrown away, that has brought the title race back down to 3 points, placing even more significance on next week’s derby. Both sides are set for potentially tough encounters, with City still to travel to Newcastle and United facing Sunderland as the season draws to a close. That said, one cannot deny that more importance has been added to a game that never lacks anticipation anyway.