Pessimism is a feeling rarely associated with a positive approach to crucial moments, being them part of professional or personal life, let alone with a football match that could prove to be a pivotal factor in the equation of a season. Pessimism was indeed very palpable in many United fans today, wary of the necessity to make the most of the defeat suffered by City yesterday, while the importance and the implications of a trip to Madrid on Wednesday loomed large on the horizon.
Having hinted at the possibility of rotating his squad ahead of their first leg in the round of 16 in the Champions League, Sir Alex Ferguson had fans worried that United could indeed let the opportunity to stretch the gap slip and, perhaps, spark another City comeback.
Such doubts were soon quashed as United kept rotation to a minimum, with Giggs and Phil Jones coming in in midfield, Rio Ferdinand rested and Michael Carrick initially on the bench. The Stretford End welcomed the teams on the pitch, unveiling a tribute flag to the late Busby Babes, who were then honoured with a standing ovation in later in the game, a reminder that at United the future is very much built on the past’s solid foundations.
Everton had derailed United’s title quest last April, two goals in the last eight, mad, minutes blowing the wheels off United’s challenge, the last chapter in a series of performances that have seen the blue half of Merseyside emerge as United’s bogey side in recent years.
It wasn’t to be this time. City’s defeat at Southampton will remain the weekend’s only shock-result in the race for the 2013 Premier League title, for United set out from the start with the verve of a side determined to seize their opportunity as much as to quash last April’s demons.
With ten minutes played, Wayne Rooney’s pass found Robin Van Persie but the Dutchman, having brilliantly danced around Tim Howard, found his right-footed effort repelled by the post. Three minutes later, the former Arsenal man turned provider, outfoxing Heitinga in the box before squaring the ball back to Ryan Giggs.
The Welshman, who made his United debut against Everton, controlled the ball with his left foot before cooling slotting home with his right, the post helping the ball past Tim Howard to give United the lead and extending Giggs’ record of consecutive league seasons marked with a goal to 23.
Phil Jones excelled in keeping Marounane Fellaini quiet, United had too often surrended inches and kilograms to the Belgium in previous encounters againtst Everton, adding another voice to ever growing choir that wants the youngster deployed as a defensive midfielder rather than as a centre-back, but his defensive work-rate left Tom Cleverley too isolated at times, allowing the visitors to grow into the game midway through the first half.
Leon Osman called David De Gea into action with a sweetly struck dipping shot, before United were forced to sustain a spell of pressure which saw Everton piling balls in the box, however without mustering a concrete chance.
On the stroke of halftime, Rafael’s pass found Van Persie presenting him with a carbon copy of his earlier chance, but the Dutchman this time went a step better, rounding Howard before cooling placing the ball in the back of the net despite Heitinga’s desperate attempt to clear off the line.
Having blown a two-goal lead in April, United’s set out with impeccable professionalism in the second half, controlling the game with ease as Everton failed to take a grip on the game. Carrick replaced Phil Jones, whose excellent defensive work on Fellaini came to an end as he hobbled off the pitch, before Tim Howard produced to superb saves in quick succession to deny Jonny Evans and Tom Cleverley, whose volley would have been a worth winner of the Goal of the Month Award.
Van Persie failed to add to his tally as he dragged his shot wide, before De Gea produced his second save of the game to deny Jelavic after Smalling had mis-controlled the ball seconds after replacing Jonny Evans.
While nobody at Old Trafford will take the gap as decisive, 12 points are starting to shape as the sort of insurance policy United need if they’re to reclaim their crown. But that will have to wait, for now it’s time to focus on nine-time Champions League winners Real Madrid. And a certain Portuguese number 7.