Sir Alex Ferguson was right in predicting a nightmare. Manchester United dropped Wayne Rooney and had this game comfortably won, until two Everton goals in stoppage time turned the afternoon on its head.
When Tim Cahill headed in with barely two minutes of injury time left to play it appeared a mere consolation goal, yet when Mikel Arteta fired in the most unlikely of equalisers following another header from the feisty Australian a minute later United had seen two points disappear in as many minutes. From looking like a team that could easily cope without Rooney, Ferguson was left wondering whether the decision to leave him out had been the correct one after all, because without exaggeration the visitors could easily have had half a dozen goals, such was their superiority.
Everton pounded United for the first half hour in the way Ferguson predicted they might, without initially being able to find the finish their pressure deserved. Mikel Arteta struck the top of the bar with a free kick after five minutes, but after Cahill then Marouane Fellaini shot wastefully into the Park End it began to look as if the home side would be left regretting having nothing to show for a prolonged period when they were on top.
That feeling intensified when Tim Howard made two remarkable saves as the interval approached, first using his foot to keep out a goalbound shot from Paul Scholes that had already taken a deflection off Cahill, then denying Ryan Giggs from close range after Darren Fletcher had easily skipped round Johnny Heitinga on the right. Like United, Everton were hampered by the lack of a their usual striker, yet still they managed to take the lead on the break six minutes froim half time. Patrice Evra missed Arteta on half way and allowed the Everton player to run into space, and though it looked as though a fine opportunity had been missed when he shot ineffectually at Edwin van der Sar with Stephen Pienaar up in support and screaming for a sideways pass, Leon Osman coolly rescued the situation by picking up the loose ball and supplying the South African for a simple finish.
The next objective for Everton was to hold their lead until the interval, and they not only failed but allowed United to take plenty of encouragement into the dressing room. The equaliser was one thing, Everton having no answer to the crisp passing that saw Giggs find Nani on the right for a precision cross that perfectly picked out Fletcher's run past the sleeping Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka, but in first-half stoppage time United almost conjured another peach when Dimitar Berbatov volleyed only inches wide from another sumptuous pass from Giggs.
It appeared United had the poise and precision to counter Everton's perspiration, and only three second half minutes were needed to prove the point. With the home central defenders caught ball-watching again as Scholes returned a half-cleared corner, Nani's second pinpoint cross of the afternoon picked out the head of Nemanja Vidic, still on the six yard line after the set-piece.
That left Everton needing to chase the game and leave gaps at the back, which suited United down to the ground. Pienaar brought a save from Van der Sar with a speculative shot, yet far more ominous was the ease with which United broke upfield for Nani to bring another save from Howard, after Berbatov had left Distin for dead on half way. Less than a minute later United scored a third from essentially the same move. Scholes's inspired pass from his own half was effortlessly controlled by Berbatov with a single touch that again left the hapless Distin a spectator, and this time the Bulgarian ran free to poke the ball early past Howard with an elegant stab his right boot. Berbatov and Nani then went on to waste excellent opportunities to make the scoreline even more convincing. A couple of extravagant misses hardly seemed to matter at the time, though by stoppage time, and possibly by the end of the season, who knows how expensive those misses could prove.
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