MANCHESTER United do not often come out second best in a scrap under Alex Ferguson but as the manager and his frustrated players left Merseyside on Saturday, the feeling that they had been undone by two costly moments of flakiness was inescapable.
To come away with a point from a hostile Goodison Park is, of course, no disaster, even though Everton’s home form has been a shadow of its usual self this season. But having totally dominated the game before half-time, victory should have been nailed on, prompting nervous glances at the closing gap at the head of the league table in both dressing rooms at Stamford Bridge yesterday.
Instead, Chelsea and Liverpool kicked off in west London knowing United had missed a trick, and with the title race unlikely to be won at a canter this year, no serious challenger can afford too many slips of this nature.
Irritatingly for Ferguson, the root causes of United’s failure to post a notable victory were reflected in the unnecessary fit of collective pique they displayed in the wake of Phil Neville’s full-bloodied challenge on Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney’s foolishly petulant behaviour that forced him to be withdrawn from the game when his side were searching for a winning goal.
Predictably, Neville’s 57th-minute challenge, a high speed sliding tackle that sent the ball flying out of play and threatened to deliver Ronaldo quickly behind it, split opinion afterwards with the critical comments of United skipper Ryan Giggs countered by home manager David Moyes’ belief that it was “fantastic“.
At the time, however, the visiting players were unanimous in their condemnation, no doubt encouraged by the prostrate winger’s histrionics, and reacted by swarming around referee Alan Wiley and Neville with Giggs and Rio Ferdinand both remonstrating furiously with their former team-mate.
“Tackles were flying in and you accept that in these kind of games,” Giggs said. “But I felt Cristiano was on the floor and couldn’t really defend himself.”
A yellow card was issued — its legitimacy debatable even after repeated viewings of the video — but if the visitors’ united defence of Ronaldo was intended to galvanise themselves in the face of growing Everton pressure, it had the opposite effect, with the home side’s sense of injustice fuelling renewed effort, in particular from Neville who crossed for Marouane Fellaini to head the equaliser just six minutes later.
“I was actually worried that might allow Manchester United to settle the game down,” said Moyes. “I thought they might have spotted an incident there to take the sting out of us. But it was a fantastic tackle and I think a few United players should be apologising to Phil Neville.”
Less forthcoming was the manager’s reaction to the suggestion that Ronaldo had over-egged his reaction in a bid to get the Everton player sent off. “Well you can say that, can’t you?” he responded, when pushed.
The incident and subsequent equaliser meant United needed cool heads if they were to force their way back in front or, having seen Yakubu strike the post just 60 seconds after Fellaini’s header, avoid slipping to defeat. Unfortunately, despite having passed another birthday, his 23rd, on Friday, Rooney shows few signs of acquiring such composure.
Rooney’s return to his former club always guarantees a poisonous atmosphere, and it doesn’t help, of course, that his pre-match comments centred around wanting to score his 100th career goal — he is currently on 99 — in his old backyard.
But Rooney’s hide should be thick enough by now to tolerate the jibes and not respond, as he did, by kissing his United badge and offering a ‘number one’ gesture when he was goaded following his 69th-minute booking for a foul on Mikel Arteta.
Ferguson was not impressed and, recognising his player had lost it, swiftly substituted Rooney for the first time this season, barely able to look at the forward as he made his way to the bench.
“I don’t know why he was booked,” said Ferguson, generously. “The crowd obviously got him booked but the way the referee was behaving, I feared he may be sent off.”
Such a situation was inconceivable during a first half when United, inspired by the sublime Giggs, offered a lesson in possession football that was capped by Darren Fletcher’s well executed, 22nd-minute finish.
Yet while the extent of Everton’s second-half makeover could never have been imagined, the slender advantage was always likely to ensure jitters and frayed nerves as the game progressed.
“We knew we needed that second goal because we expected Everton to put us under a lot of pressure after the break and that’s how it proved,” added Giggs. “They got in about us and in general made it difficult for us. When you go ahead at a place like this you do feel it’s two points dropped.”
REFEREE: Alan Wiley (Staffordshire) 6: A more card happy referee might have sent off Nemanja Vidic for a first half challenge on Louis Saha and been even more swayed by United’s demands that Phil Neville should go for a tackle on Cristiano Ronaldo.
MATCH RATING: ***** United’s intricate passing and all-round quality shone in the first half before Everton’s stirring response created a blood and thunder encounter that put more cagey, sterile contests to shame.
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