Manchester United inch along yet still leave discouraged opponents far behind. This result was even expansive by the standard of recent events, since Everton were at least defeated. In the previous fixture, Sir Alex Ferguson's side played out a goalless draw at Newcastle United. The manager was most appreciative of the effort that evening and the Premier League table shows his side in command, with a six-point lead.
It is a while since anyone anticipated seeing an exuberant United, and the team selection showed the club trying to win while also allowing some players to rest before the start of their Champions League semi-final against Schalke. Before long the squad will have to be regenerated and part of the talk around the stadium on Saturday was of a possible bid for the Everton midfielder Jack Rodwell. He did come close to putting Everton ahead in the 69th minute, but Edwin van der Sar reacted marvellously to turn behind an attempt that he could only have seen late.
The victory was certainly merited but it did not always seem clear that it would be delivered. The goal kept itself coyly out of sight until the 84th minute, when Javier Hernández headed in at the far post from a cross by Antonio Valencia. The reactions of the scorer were outstanding since the delivery from the winger had taken a deflection off Sylvain Distin.
The generally convincing centre-back had also been to blame for letting United gain possession but David Moyes, the Everton manager, spoke afterwards as if he had never expected his side to get through the afternoon unharmed. His comments bordered on the self-effacing when he denied any annoyance over a penalty refused when the match was goalless. The issue was not clear-cut, but it was peculiar of him to remark that Everton had no case for a spot-kick in the 56th minute because the substitute Victor Anichebe had not been in control of the ball when Rio Ferdinand challenged.
As Moyes and everyone else know, a penalty would be feasible even if the ball is at the other end of the pitch. It just needs one footballer to commit an offence on another. The manager can only have been so resigned to his fate because, in general, he lacked the means to put United under stress. That is a reflection of a limited budget at Goodison Park and also of injuries that have sidelined some of the more expressive figures, such as Mikel Arteta.
United, for their part, were out to win with minimum use of their real means. It might even have peeved Ferguson that he had to introduce Ryan Giggs from the bench. The intelligence and skill had, however, been essential to stir the crowd and make Everton apprehensive.
Ideally, the Welshman would have been unused, stirring himself only to limber up now and again beside the dugout while looking forward to the Champions League semi‑final. A quarter of an hour on the pitch did not see the medics called in to treat the 37-year‑old for exhaustion, but the original hope most likely was that Giggs would be excused action entirely. The United squad is extensive and Ferguson certainly has the experience to vary the selection and field a line-up with just enough impact to keep the side on course for the title.
There is, however, another objective. It was pleasing that the Champions League draw spared them an encounter with Real Madrid or Barcelona. If United do advance from the tie with Schalke to face the victors it will be a confrontation staged at Wembley, where sheer familiarity with the place might help United to feel more at ease.
Ferguson understands well that any small advantage is to be relished. This is not an exuberant side and their advantage over pursuers owes much to efficiency. United did not fall into the sort of bad patch that left Chelsea straining for recovery and the wastefulness of Arsenal is alien to the line-up. As matters stand, the title will be merited because the results often show the knack of achieving a breakthrough even when opponents, such as Everton, are on the verge of revival.