All the pre-match interest at Goodison Park had centred on strikers. For Everton, none of Jermaine Beckford, Louis Saha and Yakubu Ayegbeni started, so would Marouane Fellaini and Tim Cahill forge a profitable partnership? Wayne Rooney's absence for the visitors was understandable but would Dimitar Berbatov get into positions to receive enough possession and hold the ball up effectively for Manchester United? How would the Bulgarian cope without Rooney at his side?
The answer to that latter question was "admirably", if only after Everton's furious opening. The hosts, lined up in a 4-4-2, had attacked the game with gusto and immediately served notice of their dual heading threat of Fellaini and the spring-heeled Cahill.
United stood firm and steady by passing the ball calmly, and often shorter, into their available midfield threesome. They gathered their confidence steadily, forcing Leon Osman, Johnny Heitinga, Mikel Arteta and Steven Pienaar to get tighter to counter this spell of United possession.
Sir Alex Ferguson's players duly sensed they would profit from more direct, searching passes, by-passing that quartet in Everton's midfield as they sought to stifle. Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Berbatov, all retired from the international scene, looked extra fresh. Scholes began to direct the play, spreading the ball wide accurately and taking advantage of hesitancy in the left side of Everton's defence, and it was here that Berbatov came into his own.
The Bulgarian was languid yet lively, showing himself at every opportunity to collect passes, shielding the ball well, receiving on the half-turn and keeping the movement flowing. At times Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin were uncertain when and where to get tight to stop the flow stemming from United's central striker. He would gather, lay off and spin into space to drag markers out of their comfort zones.
The pin man in United's set-up enjoyed his afternoon. A wonderful first?half volley flew just wide as the ever-willing striker took responsibility in Rooney's absence. Not only dropping to receive short, angled passes from midfield, he was also eager to run beyond and stretch Everton's back four. One wondered whether this was evidence of something new in his game. Distin was certainly disturbed.
Playing a lone role up front demands great awareness and subtlety, working across the width of the box, not making lung-bursting runs out wide and wasting energy. Berbatov's appetite in this regard never faltered. Giggs, playing narrower, and Nani were great allies, defending with discipline and attacking with pace.
Of course, this contest will be remembered most for Everton's late resurgence as Leighton Baines prompted panic in United's defence and the hosts finished as they had started, with an aggressive tempo.
Yet, in between, one could not help but admire the way United used their lone striker so cleverly and how Berbatov responded to the challenge with his touch and ball retention. His role in United's 4-3-3 shape gave the visitors an ascendancy they had not looked likely to achieve in those frantic early minutes.
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