Manchester United like playing Everton at Old Trafford. Of the last 17 fixtures against the Toffees down Sir Matt Busby Way, they've won 14 and lost zero. Even the season before that run began brought good cheer. United lost 3-0 at the start of the 1992/93 campaign, their fans beginning to seriously wonder whether they'd ever win the league after the previous season's late capitulation. And look what happened since.
Like all good Godfearin' folk, United have mixed feelings about Easter, unsure whether to celebrate or mourn. In 1992, they drew at Luton Town and lost at home to Nottingham Forest, handing the league to Leeds United. But twelve months later, Steve Bruce scored his 197th minute winner against Sheffield Wednesday on the same day their closest challengers Aston Villa drew at home to Coventry City, and never looked back.
How much of this is relevant, though? None of it, that's what, I'm just filling space. Possibly more to the point is this: United have won their last 12 home league games in a row, they didn't create much at Newcastle in midweek, and Everton haven't lost in the league since mid February. Actually, that doesn't get us very far either.
We'll start finding out how things pan out at: 12.45pm.
Fabio, Darron Gibson and Jonny Evans are all called up for Manchester United as Fergie keeps one eye on Tuesday's match with Schalke: Van der Sar, O'Shea, Ferdinand, Evans, Fabio Da Silva, Valencia, Gibson, Anderson, Nani, Rooney, Hernandez.
Subs: Kuszczak, Evra, Brown, Owen, Giggs, Carrick, Rafael Da Silva.
The most in-form team in the league must do without Tim Cahill, who only makes the bench, and Mikel Arteta, who's not involved at all: Howard, Hibbert, Jagielka, Distin, Baines, Coleman, Neville, Rodwell, Bilyaletdinov, Osman, Beckford.
Subs: Mucha, Cahill, Gueye, Vellios, Anichebe, Mustafi, Duffy.
Getting pelters in the papers tomorrow and Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday and Friday and next Saturday: Peter Walton (Northamptonshire)
The weather: It's sunny in Manchester. You've got to say it while you can.
And we're off! United get the ball rolling, kicking towards the East Stand. They stroke it around the back for a while, only to lose possession to Coleman. He tries to feed Bilyaletdinov through the centre, but the pass is useless. A high-tempo start by the away side, though.
2 min: An early free kick for United, out on the left. Nani swings it into the area, but Jagielka heads clear with confidence.
3 min: O'Shea, trapping a dropping ball, manages to kick it up into his own face. Magnificent.
5 min: Another free kick by Nani out on the left. He shifts it to Rooney, who belabours a low shot that's deflected out left for a corner. Howard claims the set piece with ease. A slow-ish start in terms of incident, but both teams seem to have come out in a positive mood, so here's hoping.
8 min: With Rodwell and Beckford in dangerous positions either side of him, Osman rolls a weak shot at the United goal. "You fat bastard," chant the travelling Everton support. What are they talking about, please?
11 min: Baines swings a free kick into the United area from wide left. Rooney, stationed at the far post, heads clear. Old Trafford is pretty quiet, on account of nothing much having happened so far.
13 min: The first shot in anger, and it's by Nani, diddling around on the left, at a fairly tight angle. He tries to lift a shot over Howard and into the top-right corner, but the keeper is wise to his game and plucks it from the air with disdain.
17 min: United are enjoying the lion's share of possession now. A strange game of pinball in the Everton six-yard box as Evans tries to head home a corner, Neville eventually slashing clear. "O'Shea? Evans? Gibson? Anderson?" begins Rory Murray, possibly typing along to Pop Musik by M. "If you can't do it this season, Arsene, you never will." Leaving aside the pedantic point that Wenger already has done it, three times, it's a fair argument regarding the state of play, and of Arsenal, this season. It's almost as though Ferguson is rubbing Wenger's nose in it, just because he can. But he wouldn't, would he?
19 min: A lovely power move by United, Valencia sweeping straight down the middle and slipping a direct ball down the inside-right channel for Rooney, whose instant low cross is swiped clear by Distin. Soon after, O'Shea is shanking a laughable effort wide left of goal from a decent position on the edge of the Everton area. United are well on top now. Everton can't keep hold of the ball at all.
21 min: United stream forward again. Fabio robs a dithering Bilyaletdinov and bombs into Everton's half. He feeds Valencia in the middle, who in turn knocks it to Rooney nearby. The ball's slipped out wide right for Hernandez, whose dinked cross is claimed by Howard. We're not quite in it's-a-matter-of-time territory for United yet, but Everton want to watch themselves. United are threatening to take them over.
25 min: Anderson slips a delicious pass down the inside-left channel to spring Hernandez clear. He hammers an instant shot towards the near post, Howard fingertipping out for a corner. Great play all round. The corner is wasted.
27 min: Gibson makes O'Shea look like Johnny Metgod by scooping a shot from the edge of the area about, ooh, 20 yards wide left. No power, either.
31 min: Rooney slides a ball right to left across the face of the Everton box for Hernandez, who hammers a first-time shot towards the top-right corner. Howard parries brilliantly. Again, great play all round. What's happened to Hernandez's nickname, by the way? At the start of the season it was Chicharito this, Chicharito that, Little Pea the other. It's still on his shirt, but in the general discourse, commentators have settled on Hernandez. Why hasn't it taken? At this rate, he'll be known as Señor Hernández Balcázar Esq. before the season's out.
33 min: This is attack versus defence at the moment, with the two teams playing out the roles you'd expect. Hernandez - surely United's player of the season? - zips down the right this time and wins a corner. Everton are dealing with the set pieces very comfortably, though, and mop this one up without fuss. Both Hernandez and Rooney look really up for this, they're streaming forward with intent.
35 min: Evans and Beckford tangle in the left-hand corner of the United area, near the dead-ball line. Beckford stumbles over, Evans putting his right knee up to ensure the Everton player doesn't somehow squirm past. Evans then falls on top of him. That looked nothing more than a pair of alcoholics attempting the pasodoble, but Beckford's claiming for a penalty. You could make a case for it, I suppose, as Evans did deliberately look to check him, but Beckford would be exceptionally lucky to get it, as he appeared to be deliberately spilling over Evans' thigh, looking for it.
38 min: Valencia brushes Baines out of the way down the right. He's free in the area, but cuts back inside for Nani, who passes the ball towards the bottom-right corner, Howard diving in the wrong direction. But Hernandez has fallen over in the centre, and the goalbound shot hits his back and goes out for a goal kick. Everton were very fortunate there.
41 min: Now Rooney tears clear down the Everton right. What on earth is Baines up to? Rooney pulls a low cross into the centre, as opposed to shooting from a not-particularly-tight angle, as he surely must, and Distin is able to hack clear. United are in the ascendency here all right.
HALF TIME: Manchester United 0-0 Everton. Despite piling forward for the last few minutes of the half, United create nothing else, and the whistle goes. United haven't scored for two-and-a-half games now, but Everton are giving them every chance. United have been impressive flowing forward, but the visitors have been very timid indeed. They've got some serious issues with Old Trafford.
David Moyes has obviously had the funk on. He's made a double change, in an attempt to shake up Everton, who were an absolute shower in the first half. Anichebe and Cahill come on for Beckford and Bilyaletdinov. And we're off again, Everton setting the ball rolling for the second half.
48 min: Not much going on so far.
50 min: Still nothing. This isn't a work of fiction, my hands are tied.
52 min: Anderson's just shanked a pass into the stand, Cahill soon following suit with a dreadful first-time shot from the edge of the United box. Everton have come out with a little bit more purpose, I suppose. Meanwhile the home side were streaming forward with supreme confidence in the first period, but haven't been able to string any passes together yet.
53 min: Mr Hernandez Esq bombs down the inside-right channel, checks, and slides a ball into the centre for the onrushing Rooney. Luckily for Everton, Jagielka is sliding in to whip the ball clear just before the striker can cock his leg and bullet the ball goalwards. Great defending.
54 min: Anderson is booked for taking out Coleman at the knees, with his knees. What a very strange challenge.
55 min: Now Cahill's in the book, for clipping Ferdinand round the ankles. He can have no complaints at that.
57 min: Anichebe skins Ferdinand down the left and powers into the box. He loses control as he's about to shoot, then is shoved over by the left arm of the defender. We've all seen penalties given for that, but the striker didn't have control of the ball, Van der Sar snaffling as the Everton man fell, and that probably made the referee's mind up for him. You can argue either way for that one, and I'll not be getting involved.
59 min: O'Shea is replaced by Evra.
61 min: Rooney strokes a majestic pass down the inside-right channel for Hernandez, who checks back and looks to hammer a low cross inside for Gibson. Distin slides in to clear. This scene has been played out four or five times now, at least. At some point, it's going to click for United.
64 min: Everyone's favourite striker, Michael Owen, comes on for Nani.
66 min: Anderson swans around the middle of the park awhile. Eventually he breaks forward and scuffs a dreadful low shot wide right. "As an occasional viewer of football," begins EastStar, "I'm watching this game from here in China, only cos its free. I'm sure glad I don't have to pay to watch this poor quality stuff. Surely the Brits have to get real and acknowledge their is no comparison with Spanish football. And I thought the Chinese team were bad. British football is hyped up out of all proportion for money." Preach on, brother.
68 min: Osman breaks down the left and dinks a cross into the centre. Evans heads clear, but only just, the ball evading the onrushing Cahill by inches. A warning sign for United, who have been super-comfortable at the back. Apart from, er, those two penalty shouts.
69 min: From the edge of the area, Rodwell hits a low shot towards the bottom-left corner. It takes a small deflection off Evans, then is fingertipped out for a corner by Van der Sar. What a wonderful save, because that was on target, and the keeper was at full stretch. The corner is wasted, and United stream upfield, perhaps shocked into action by Everton's sudden showing in attack. The move peters out, but I have a feeling this is going to turn into a basketball match now.
72 min: And so it begins. Anichebe nearly picks up a loose ball in the United area as he steams forward, but Ferdinand eases him out. Down the other end, Rooney, Evra and Anderson twiddle around down the left, Rooney's eventual low cross being mopped up by Neville. "I'm paying for this and not watching it so eat it, EastStar!" big-legs Niall Mullen. "I'm sticking it to those premier league fat cats!"
74 min: Fabio crosses low from the right into the Everton six-yard box. Distin shanks a comedic clearance onto the near post, and away. On Sky, the nearby Michael Owen gets the credit for his striking brilliance.
75 min: Gueye comes on for Coleman. Meanwhile United replace Gibson with Giggs. That's an upgrade, right?
77 min: Owen goes for a walk, left to right, through the Everton area. He can't get a shot away, though, and the danger is over. He says he's got an important goal in him this season. A dramatic title-clincher today? Could he be the Federico Macheda de nos jours?
79 min: Jagielka upends Mr J Hernandez, Esq, 25 yards out from goal, just to the left. Rooney hammers a free kick towards the top-left corner, but Howard parries over and round the bar. From the corner, the ball drops to Rooney on the edge of the area, but the striker drags a shot wide left of target.
80 min: This is all United now. Valencia welts a shot, sailing just wide left, only to see it hit Hernandez. The ball pinballs around the area, before Hernandez sees a close-range header tipped over the bar, a magnificent save by Howard. This is proper pressure now, as you'd expect from Manchester United. They've really turned it up a notch.
82 min: Howard is booked for timewasting at a goal kick.
83 min: GOAL!!! Manchester United 1-0 Everton. This had been coming and no mistake. Valencia hassles Distin to win the ball in the centre, then powers down the right and stands a ball up to the far post, where Hernandez rises and heads home from a couple of yards out. Fantastic pressure from United, and the reward of a goal for their best player.
86 min: United, having released the pressure, are now taking all the heat out of this game, stroking the ball around at the back, Rooney orchestrating play. Everton look tired and shellshocked.
88 min: Pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass passity pass. United are giving out like Arsenal here. With one obvious exception, of course.
90 min: There will be five added minutes of this. On the touchline, Alex Ferguson reacts, sending the armed forces into an alert state of Defcon One.
90 min +2: Cahill slaps a header goalwards from ten yards out, but there's no power in the effort and Van der Sar cups the ball in his tender arms.
90 min +4: Everton send a long free kick into the United area towards Anichebe. It is spectacularly useless.
FULL TIME: Manchester United 1-0 Everton. And that's that. United are now nine points clear at the top of the table thanks to Hernandez's winner, much deserved against a team who simply did not turn up. That 19th title looks very much on the cards. But Everton at Old Trafford, eh? They've got issues.