Manchester United threw away a 2-goal lead against Everton as they dropped two – potentially – crucial points in the title race, in an extraordinary game likely to have a much bigger importance than expected.
With City winning away at Wolverhampton, the result means that United will travel to the Etihad a week tomorrow only three points ahead of their rivals, after being eight clear two weeks ago.
This season has seen many twists and turns and none more so than at Old Trafford today, where Nikica Jelavic and Steven Pienaar combined to rescue Everton from the brink, after the Toffees had found themselves 4-2 down after 82minutes.
Wayne Rooney’s 26th league goal of the season – his 180th for the club – after a superb passage of play with Danny Welbeck looked to have put United firmly in control, but the lead evaporated as Everton scored twice in two minutes.
First Fellaini – arguably the man of the match – flicked the ball towards Jelavic who struck home a fine volley for his second of the game.
Then, barely 120 seconds later, Fellaini tormented Evans again, this time by squaring the ball into Pienaar’s path who side footed it past DeGea to stun Old Trafford.
Everton were thought to be United’s hardest test in the run-in and proved so from the start – Jelavic forcing a good save from DeGea and Osman firing wide a minute later.
United, with Nani replacing Young the only difference from the side that had put four past Villa a week ago, struggled to settle into any kind of rhythm and their nerves on the pitch seemed to translate into a largely subdued response by the fans.
With little more than half an hour played Everton found themselves 1-0 up as Hibbert’s cross found Jelavic at the far post.
The Croatian – what a fantastic buy he’s turning out to be – out jumped Rafael sending a looping header over DeGea to give the visiting side the lead.
United started the second half on the front foot and went ahead through two sublime goals.
With 57 minutes played, Welbeck created space for himself at the edge of the box, before unleashing a curling effort that gave Tim Howard no chance.
Three minutes later United produced the kind of team goal that would have grabbed the headlines had the result been different.
Welbeck, Nani and Carrick exchanged passes inside the box, with the Portuguese applying the finishing touch by chipping the onrushing Tim Howard.
Patrice Evra then hit the post from point blank range, and few could have predicted how important that miss turned out to be in the economy of the game and, perhaps, of the whole season.
Jelavic and Pienaar then delivered the most unthinkable of twists before United were frustrated by a superb save from Tim Howard that denied Rio Ferdinand what would have been the winner.
The doom and gloom merchants will no doubt make themselves heard over the next week, but United still lead City by three points.
Slim a lead as it might be it should be enough to comfort United, as they’ll travel to the Etihad knowing that even a draw would be a huge step towards retaining the title.
Fergie knew that United hadn’t won the title two weeks ago, just as he knows that they haven’t lost it today.
Dropping points is one thing, relinquishing a lead a different matter altogether and great teams produce when back up against the wall, as proved by last night’s El Clasico.