LIVERPOOL // Rather than the expensive attacker, the depleted defence was the deciding factor. Robin van Persie's Manchester United debut ended in a defeat that was attributable to a shortage of centre-backs as well as the hunger of an irrepressible Everton side.
The £24 million (Dh138.4m) signing had a cameo as substitute, attempting to retrieve a lost cause but United's bid to win a 20th title started with a setback.
Much as Everton outworked and overpowered their visitors, it was a match that came down to an individual battle. The makeshift defender Michael Carrick was no match for the man-mountain Marouane Fellaini and the Belgian headed Everton to a richly-deserved victory.
They were forceful and physical but also, in the smaller figures of Steven Pienaar and Leon Osman, neat and clever and creative.
Organisation and industry are trademarks of David Moyes' teams but they also subjected United to a bombardment that brought a belated reward when Fellaini scored. But for the brave defiance of David de Gea, Everton would have led earlier and United lost by more.
Instead, with a quarter of the game remaining, Ferguson sent for his deluxe substitute. Van Persie's first contribution was to take a corner but he could not inspire a fightback.
Despite drawing a blank, however, United's problems lay not in attack, but at the other end.
Four centre-backs were out injured and their downfall was advertised early on.
The danger of fielding two auxiliary defenders was highlighted when Fellaini spun away from Antonio Valencia and powered past Carrick before hitting the outside of the post.
From the off, the Belgian's intimidating presence provided United with problems at set pieces; from one, the diminutive figure of Pienaar almost looped a header in, the backtracking De Gea tipping over. The sprawling Spaniard tipped a shot from the South African and a Leighton Baines free kick wide.
His finest save, however, came when Fellaini knocked the ball down for Osman to connect sweetly with a half-volley.
The combination of the big Belgian and the little Lancastrian came still closer to bringing a breakthrough. Fellaini, as he did all evening, won a header. Osman reacted with a thunderous volley that rebounded back off the bar.
Then, finally, the pressure told. Darron Gibson, formerly of United, delivered a corner. Fellaini powered above Carrick and directed his header in. And then, as is their wont, Everton retreated and looked to hold on.
While possessing an impressive attacking armoury, United had mustered little until then.
Nani, in open play, and Wayne Rooney, from a free kick, both curled 20-yard efforts just past the post until the old Evertonian shot straight at Tim Howard on the turn.
Then Shinji Kagawa slid in Danny Welbeck who, stumbling as he shot, almost found the bottom corner.
Yet they were muted until Tom Cleverley beat Tim Howard but not the outstanding Phil Jagielka, who cleared off the line.
It was cue for Van Persie to make his bow. But there was no fairy tale start for him as United received a reminder that stopping goals is as important as scoring them.