It is coming to something when you cannot even rely on Manchester United for a cliffhanging finish. When Javier Hernández made sure of the points that will most likely bring a record 19th league title to Old Trafford, just staying onside to nod Antonio Valencia's measured cross over the line at the far post, there were a whole six minutes left on the clock. Fans were practically demanding their money back.
In keeping with this somewhat lacklustre Premier League championship race United kept Arsenal and Chelsea at bay without even needing nine minutes of stoppage time or a debatable penalty. When an inexplicably hefty five minutes of added time was announced the crowd booed and Sir Alex Ferguson even had the brass neck to complain it was unfair.
Sure, United followed the usual script to the extent of going well over an hour without scoring, and towards the end of the second half appeared comically incapable of finding the target, but the champions elect were merely teasing Arsenal and Chelsea. The final result was not even tough on Everton, who had been riding their luck all afternoon and must have been amazed to find themselves still level so late in the game. Like the London sides with rather more interest in the outcome, they will not have been greatly surprised at the way the game went.
The simple fact of the matter, a more prosaic consideration than another United lateshow but a pertinent one, is that Ferguson had to make his selection with an eye on a Champions League semi-final in Germany on Tuesday. This was not United's strongest possible side, it was the one Ferguson thought he could get away with and continue to fight on two fronts. As no one else in the domestic title race is doing that any longer it is asking a lot for United to be flamboyant.
"We created enough chances to be well ahead at half-time but our pass selection and decision-making were not up to scratch," Ferguson said. "We got there in the end, and now we have only four league games left. People keep saying what happens if we lose against Chelsea or Arsenal, but forget all that nonsense, what happens if we win? If we keep winning our games we will be champions."
United should have been out of sight by the interval. Everton defended doughtily but offered almost nothing in attack, a criticism accepted by David Moyes, and Anderson alone produced enough defence-splitting passes to produce a comfortable half-time cushion. Valencia was not far behind the Brazilian in creating inviting openings, yet with Wayne Rooney and Hernández not really on each other's wavelength and Nani taking the wrong option so frequently you could put money on it, the home side had nothing to show for an opening period they completely dominated.
While Tim Howard made one fine save to punch away a goal-bound shot from Hernández, it was not a case of heroics from the Everton goalkeeper keeping a rampant United at bay, more a lack of wit and intention from the home side. When they began rolling square balls to invite Darron Gibson to shoot from outside the area it was a sure sign of a shortage of attacking ideas. Though just after Howard's reaction save United were unlucky not to go in front when Valencia used power as well as pace to muscle past Leighton Baines and outstrip the Everton defence on the right. The winger did everything correctly, looking up from the byline to see who was available for a cut-back, only to see Hernández slip in front of goal.
Valencia crossed to Nani instead, but with an inevitably that seemed to sum up United's first-half frustration, when the shot came in it struck the Mexican and bounced to safety. The Little Pea could have done with making himself a bit smaller.
Everton brought Tim Cahill and Victor Anichebe on for the second half, perhaps sensing there might be something in the game for them. United initially stayed the same and were encouraged by a sharp chance Nani and Hernández helped create for Rooney, superbly snuffed out by an excellent block from Phil Jagielka. Everton then had a decent penalty shout turned down when Anichebe embarrassed Rio Ferdinand and strode into the box. The United captain appeared to get away with a subtle nudge in the back, though the Everton player would have been better advised to use his obvious strength to stay on his feet.
When United made their first attacking change after an hour it was a surprising one, Michael Owen replacing Nani. With Patrice Evra already introduced and Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick warming up on the touchline few anticipated a third striker and the risk of going all out for a goal was perfectly illustrated when Jack Rodwell proceed a snap shot 20 minutes from the end that Edwin van der Sar had to dive full length to palm round a post.
It began to look as though it might not be United's day when Owen struck a post from Fábio's cross four minutes after that, though there was still time to send on Giggs for the last quarter of an hour, and plenty of time for Valencia to close down Sylvain Distin and allow Hernández to resume normal service. "We defended great," Moyes said. "There was only the one lapse, but they did put us under a lot of pressure."
THE FANS' PLAYER RATINGS AND VERDICT
PETE BOYLE, Observer reader I felt so bad for 60 or 70 minutes thinking it was never going to happen. Everton are a difficult team to play against on their day. If we hadn't won the momentum would have been with Chelsea, so the relief from Hernández's goal was unbelievable. I thought he was our standout player – his movement throughout the game was fantastic.
The fan's player ratings Van der Sar 7; F da Silva 6, Ferdinand 6, Evans 6, O'Shea 6 (Evra 57 6); Valencia 7, Anderson 6, Gibson 6 (Giggs 74 6), Nani 7 (Owen 63 6); Rooney 7, Hernández 8
STEVE JONES, BlueKipper.com I think Ferguson underestimated Everton. It was 50-50 in the first half and for the first 20 minutes in the second half we held our own. But things changed and we had a problem holding the ball up front – I was disappointed with Jermaine Beckford's performance. It was hot and we wilted towards the end, but it was good to have Tim Cahill back. We were struggling to get a side out.
The fan's player ratings Howard 8; Hibbert 7, Jagielka 9, Distin 7, Baines 7; Coleman 6 (Gueye 74 6), Osman 7, Neville 7, Rodwell 7, Bilyaletdinov 5 (Cahill ht 7); Beckford 4 (Anichebe ht 7)
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