TIM HOWARD’S Manchester United career may have been brief and unspectacular, but the keeper is now certain to occupy a more prominent place the Old Trafford record books.
The American goalkeeper’s saves from Dimitar Berbatov and Rio Ferdinand secured Everton’s penalty shoot-out victory here yesterday and brought an abrupt end to any further mention of the quintuple.
Yet while Howard’s performance at the finale of a painfully dull semi-final, Everton’s victory is more likely to be viewed in the context of United players present, not past.
Alex Ferguson decided to place progress in the FA Cup a very poor second to three points in Wednesday’s Premier League clash with Portsmouth and field a team that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a reserve team game.
Only three of the players who began last Wednesday’s Champions League match with FC Porto lined up at Wembley and his chosen XI had started just 106 league games this season between them. Given that Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic account for 50 of those, it is clear that Ferguson’s decision was either brave or foolhardy.
Ultimately it proved to be both, although had referee Mike Riley viewed Danny Welbeck’s convincing claim for a second-half penalty differently, United’s second string may well have maintained their manager’s record of never having exited the FA Cup at this stage.
Riley’s apparent affiliation to United had been raised as a possible issue by David Moyes, the Everton manager, and Ferguson admitted that may have had an influence on the match official’s decision.
If it did, then Moyes may well feel he struck a blow to those many managers who feel they have been victims of the Old Trafford manager’s psychological warfare.
What was more important was that it was Ferguson’s players, who for once appeared mentally weakened when it came to penalties.
Having kept their nerve to win a shoot-out in last season’s Champions League final in Moscow, and then again in this year’s Carling Cup final, the odds were on United to finally claim the victory they probably just deserved after 120 minutes.
Those odds shortened when Tim Cahill struck the first effort over the bar, but Berbatov’s horribly tame effort was easily saved by Howard to restore parity and when Ferdinand followed suit, it was only a matter of time before Phil Jagielka was given the chance to complete Everton’s win and take them into the final for the first time since they beat United in 1995.
The full impact of Ferguson’s decision will be felt in the coming weeks and he will feel he has been fully vindicated if United recover from their recent wobbles in the league and hang onto the Premier League title whilst also progressing past Arsenal in the Champions League semi-final.
The manager insisted he couldn’t afford to risk fatigue in his senior players, a clear indication he is concerned by the form of his main rivals, yet having witnessed Everton’s limitations, he will surely view this as a chance missed.
For Moyes, that was of no consequence, his only concern being that Everton are now one step closer towards capping their outstanding progress under the Scot with the trophy he craves so badly. They will only satisfy that craving, however, if they perform considerably better in the final against Chelsea.
The unfamiliarity of the United line-up meant it was inevitable Ferguson’s side would lack their normal fluency and incisiveness. Yet it quickly became clear they would still have enough pace and creativity to trouble the Everton defence, and it was the Blues back-four that was by far the busier during the opening 45 minutes.
Carlos Tevez, himself only 25, accepted the responsibility of co-ordinating his inexperienced teenage strike-partners Federico Macheda and Danny Welbeck and orchestrated a series of neat passing moves around the edge of the area.
Whether Everton were boosted or insulted by the sight of the United team-sheet, they initially showed few signs of being able to exploit their weakened opponents. Marouane Fellaini attempted to get close to lone striker Louis Saha but the Belgian’s aerial threat was nullified by Nemanja Vidic and Everton’s only chance of the first half came when United keeper Ben Foster scuffed a clearance.
It was clear Everton needed to inject more purpose and self-belief into their attacking movements. That is exactly what they did after the restart, when they pressed United onto the back-foot and finally brought a meaningful save from Foster when Tim Cahill let fly from 30 yards in the 54th minute.
But Moyes’ side again found themselves overrun as United took charge with Park and Darron Gibson both coming close with shots.
Their best opening, though, was denied by Riley who adjudged there had been no infringement when Everton defender Phil Jagielka appeared to trip Welbeck after the United striker had latched onto a loose ball and rounded Howard.
Ferguson was fuming and he would have been even more furious had he known his side would struggle to make another chance of note before the tie drifted into extra-time.
Penalties always looked the most likely outcome once the extra half-hour had been signalled, although Everton substitute James Vaughan wasted a good opening when he directed a shot straight at Vidic.
REFEREE: Mike Riley (Yorkshire) 5: Not many people would have wanted to swap places with the referee when he met Alex Ferguson after the game. How he turned down United’s claim for a second half penalty is anyone’s guess.
MATCH RATING: ** Some semi-finals can stir the soul — this wasn’t one of them. Everton froze on the big occasion and United’s raw youngsters looked, well, raw.
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