x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Everton draw makes the Manchester derby even more appetising

Sir Alex Ferguson can't believe it as his side drop points after the away side's comeback shares the points at Old Trafford.

Manchester United's Nani scores against Everton.
Manchester United's Nani scores against Everton.

Late goals and comebacks are part of Manchester United's DNA. They are normally a source of pride. Not yesterday. They were a cause of frustration, reasons to regret an extraordinary afternoon at Old Trafford. They were part of an implausible, incredible recovery from Everton, a team having a sizeable say in the title race.

Having beaten Manchester City in January, they claimed a deserved point at Old Trafford. Yet it was not just the fact Everton drew. It was that United conceded four goals; that they twice led by two; that, in the space of three games, they have dropped five points.

"You just can't believe it," said Sir Alex Ferguson, summing up the emotions of 76,000 surprised onlookers. United's 20th league title now hinges on the most momentous Manchester derby of them all. "The big game against City next Monday will be a derby game of the highest proportions," the Scot added.

Yet his side seemed to be giving themselves margin for error. A landmark day for Wayne Rooney, whose brace took him past George Best and Dennis Viollet to become the club's fourth highest scorer, appeared one where the entire team would have cause for celebration.

Yet the old Evertonian was emulated by Goodison Park's current striking hero. Nikica Jelavic completed a double of his own to halve the deficit before Steven Pienaar equalised. "We've thrown the match away, no question about it," said Ferguson succinctly.

A remarkable match could have had a suitably strange ending, Rio Ferdinand almost scoring a 95th-minute winner - the former United keeper Tim Howard flying across his goal to preserve a point - but that would have been unfair on Everton.

Beaten by Liverpool in last week's FA Cup semi-final, this was a magnificent riposte. "Our players were terrific from the first minute to the last," said manager David Moyes. He singled out the "unplayable" Marouane Fellaini, but others were equally deserving of praise: Jelavic, the nerveless finisher; Sylvain Distin, the makeshift left-back who subdued Antonio Valencia; Leon Osman, elusive and influential. A full list would incorporate the whole team. Even the goals they conceded were, as Ferguson said: "Really great."

The superior side in the first half, Everton took a deserved lead. The overlapping Tony Hibbert delivered a deep cross that Jelavic, eluding Rafael da Silva, met with a header that looped over David de Gea and in. The Croatian wheeled away, pointing to his scalp in surprise.

United only trailed for seven minutes. Sidelining Ashley Young ensured a controversy-free day for the winger, but brought a benefit. Nani was preferred on the left and, along with Danny Welbeck, he was United's outstanding player. The Portuguese crossed and Rooney supplied the finish, a close-range header.

Then the game appeared to have taken a decisive turn United's way. After Nani winning a header against Phil Neville, Welbeck baffled Johnny Heitinga with a shuffle and beat De Gea with his curled shot. A second goal in three minutes followed. Scorer spectacularly, Welbeck turned supplier deftly, feeding a pass into the path of the advancing Nani. He dinked his shot over the diving Howard.

Even Everton's second goal only appeared a temporary hitch for United. Hibbert provided a second assist, his cross being volleyed in by Fellaini.

Again United responded with slick interplay by Rooney and Welbeck, who exchanged passes, culminating in the senior striker sliding his shot in. "Their combination play and understanding of each other was terrific," Ferguson added.

Yet as he praised his forwards, he criticised the back four. "It was terrible defending," he complained. After Evra hit the Everton post, when Neville chipped a cross into the United box, both central defenders were sucked towards the towering Fellaini. Jonny Evans' weak header only fell for Jelavic to drill in his second goal.

Then, when Neville's probing ball found Fellaini, the Belgian swivelled and picked out Pienaar, who levelled. The impossible had happened. United had lost a lead. Everton had come back from the dead.


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