Everton came back from 3-1 and 4-2 down in a match that defied all logic and left the title race wide open
Preamble Afternoon. The challenge is to get through this preamble without using the SBT phrase. No, not Super Betty Turpin. The other one. The one that journalists are contractually obliged to use at this stage of the season.
It's often said that, as the end of a long campaign approaches, the only thing that matters is keeping your destiny in your hands. Yet it's arguably even more important to keep your rivals' destiny out of their hands. To explain: if Manchester United beat Everton, Swansea and Sunderland over the next few weeks, they can afford to lose 6-1 or even 947-0 against Manchester City in eight days' time. Yet if they even draw one of those other games, City know that they will be champions provided they win their last four matches.
A five-point lead with four games to play is a box seat, of course, but it's not quite as good as it looks – not when there's still a six-pointer to come. United don't have any margin for error against Everton at Old Trafford today. If they fail to win, City's destiny will be back in their own hands and next week's Manchester derby will move into a whole new stratosphere. They don't call this squeaky-bum time for nothiGAH.
Team news Ashley Young has felt a gravitational pull towards the Old Trafford bench after besmirching the club in the last two home games. For Everton, Sylvain Distin has apparently drawn the short straw marked 'play against Antonio Valencia'. You probably couldn't fit all that on a short straw, could you.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1) De Gea; Rafael, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra; Carrick, Scholes; Valencia, Rooney, Nani; Welbeck.
Subs: Amos, Jones, Giggs, Smalling, Park, Hernandez, Young.
Everton (4-2-3-1) Howard; Hibbert, Jagielka, Heitinga, Distin, Neville, Gibson; Osman, Fellaini, Pienaar; Jelavic.
Subs: Mucha, Stracqualursi, McFadden, Cahill, Gueye, Barkley, Anichebe.
Referee Mike Jones (Cheshire)
Some people like to accentuate the positive in life, the weirdos. And the positive scenario for United is seriously tantalising: win today and they can win the title at the Etihad a week tomorrow. Arsenal have clinched a championship at White Hart Lane, Anfield and Old Trafford, but United have never done so at one of their major rivals.
1 min I only arrived at work 47 seconds ago, so if I bust a metacarpal in the second entry it's because I haven't done my MBM warm-ups. Anyway, Everton kick off from right to left. They are in blue; United are in red.
2 min There was a suggestion that Phil Neville might play in his Euro 2000 position of left-back, but it is indeed Distin against Valencia, with Neville in midfield. Everton have started pretty well, and Osman heads not far wide from 12 yards after following up his own deflected shot. That was deceptively close.
3 min "Utd will be fine, they've got Phil Neville playing for them," says Clive Darwell, who definitely isn't drinking Murphy's. "See if he can score another title clinching goal for them whilst retaining unmelted butter in his mouth."
5 min Everton have been much the better side, and now Jelavic has missed a half chance. He was slipped through by a lovely angled pass from Osman, with Evans in close proximity, and forced a decent diving save from De Gea with a curler from the edge of the box. He might have taken an extra touch to get closer to goal. Moments later, Osman dragged a cross shot wide from the right side of the box. That was a half chance as well.
6 min "Be honest now – did ManU play their early season games with as much 'it's all on the line' intensity as this one?" says Paul Taylor. "Those points do count the same, no?"
I think they did, yeah: look at their record before Christmas. That wasn't always the case, however. Jose Mourinho basically taught English football that points in August were worth the same as points in May.
7 min Fellaini seems to have been instructed to sit near Scholes when United have the ball. It'll be interesting to see how that plays out. Scholes is lethal with time on the ball, but he can be harassed.
8 min United haven't started playing at all. The atmosphere is muted, as always with early starts at Old Trafford, and Everton look very comfortable.
10 min Valencia's cross goes all the way to Nani on the other side of the area. He comes inside Osman, 20 yards from goal, and curls wide of the far post.
12 min A better effort from Nani, from a similar position, is straight into the chest of Tim Howard.
13 min "Fellaini marking Scholes?" sniffs Gary Naylor. "Get a fiver on a yellow card there." He's not quite marking him, but he and Gibson seem to be taking it in turns to press Scholes, depending on where the ball is.
14 min Rooney, under pressure from Jagielka, heads Evra's cross wide from seven yards. It wasn't much of a chance.
15 min "Was Scholes always this good?" asks Alex Netherton. You youngsters. You twentysomethings. If you could have seen him between 1997 and 2001, or in 2002-04, or 2006-07.
16 min "Shooooooooot" scream the crowd as
Darron Gib Paul Scholes picks up possession 30 yards from goal. He takes a touch and drags a bobbling shot wide of the post.
17 min Jelavic's excellent movement is troubling United. He picks up Felliani's flick-on down the right of the box, and Ferdinand has to clear his low cross.
20 min Neville stands a cross up from the right towards Distin, who gets above Valencia but heads wide from six yards. Valencia put him under enough pressure to make the header difficult. This is superb from Everton. I thought they might sulk a bit after last weekend's disappointment, but there hasn't been any of that.
22 min "Is it fair to say Scholes has come back a different player though?" says Alex Netherton. Yeah, loosely speaking he played in the hole from 1994-96, as an attacking midfielder from 1996-05, and as a deep-lying midfielder when he came back from his eye injury in 2006.
23 min "Can I be the first to point out that failing to go through the recommended warm-up routine will not affect the strength of your metacarpal bones," says Philip Davis. "It's generally the flexor digitorum profundis tendon that brings many promising MBM careers to an early conclusion..." I was just going to type precisely that but the hamstring in my little finger is killing me.
24 min Welbeck's shot from the left of the box is blocked by the sliding Valencia. United have really struggled to build any momentum. The fact Scholes hasn't been on the ball much has plenty to do with that. Fellaini is stalking him like a big, malevolent human afro.
25 min United get their first corner, down the left-hand side. Rooney swings it straight into the hands of Tim Howard, who had pushed Welbeck out the way with both hands. That's a dangerous thing to do in your own penalty area.
27 min Another good run from Jelavic leads to a corner on the right. Gibson drills it deep, De Gea gets nowhere near the ball and Evans heads it half clear. It comes to Pienaar on the left, and he lays an inviting pass to the edge of the area for Osman. His first-time shot is well blocked by a sliding defender.
28 min Everton are still the better side. They have been helped by a modest performance from United and a pathetic one from the crowd.
31 min Gibson dummies Scholes 30 yards from goal and whistles a good effort not far wide of the near post. De Gea had it covered but it was beautifully struck.
32 min "Wayne Rooney: discuss," says Jaker Ahmed. "Personally, for a long time I've not been convinced of his world class reputation, which I remember reaching its ridiculous height in a Patrick Barclay article which basically pitted him against Messi for legend status depending on which won the World Cup for their country (!). Yeah, he's a good player, but I'm not sure his "careless performance" against Villa last week was a surprise. In so many of his games that I've seen over the years (post maverick, genuinely exciting kid Rooney, anyway) the elements of said same carelessness generally repeat themselves. Like a smelly post meal burp, if you will. Important to United, sure, but that doesn't mean he's world class." He's had a very weird season, with loads of goals, back-to-back hat-tricks, some brilliant displays (Chelsea away in particular) but also some awful, listless performances. He looks a bit like a man who wants to be somewhere else.
GOAL! Manchester United 0-1 Everton (Jelavic 33) A superb header from Nikica Jelavic blows the title race open. A good move involving Pienaar, Osman, Fellaini and Gibson ended with Hibbert swinging over a deep, lofted cross from the right. It came to Jelavic at a really narrow angle on the left edge of the six-yard box, and he placed a masterful looping header over De Gea into the other corner. That is such a classy finish, and it gives Everton a deserved lead.
35 min United almost equalise instantly. A half-cleared corner comes to Scholes, 25 yards out, and his first-time deflects off both Jagielka and Welbeck before being saved by the outstretched right foot of Howard. He was diving the other way but stuck out a foot to block the shot.
37 min To recap, a draw isn't much use to United here. Well it's better than a Hetty Wainthrop boxset, but essentially they need to win.
38 min Rafael goes down just inside the area after a clumsy challenge from Osman. There wasn't much of an appeal for United, but replays suggest that was definitely a foul. However the contact was a fraction outside the box, so it wouldn't have been a penalty.
GOAL! Manchester United 1-1 Everton (Rooney 41) That's the value of Nani. He drives you up the wall at times but he can be a devastating crosser and has just created the equaliser for Wayne Rooney with a superb piece of play. He teased Hibbert on the left corner of the box and swerved in a beautiful cross that dipped over the head of Phil Neville and onto the head of Wayne Rooney, who flicked a decisive header past Howard from five yards.
43 min Distin has played Valencia very well so far, and Nani has been by far United's liveliest attacker – erratic, as ever, but always wanting the ball and looking to make things happen. He receives a pass from Scholes 25 yards out, to the right of centre, and drags a curling shot well wide.
45 min Pienaar has been at his waspish best in this half. What happened to him at Spurs? He is such a nice footballer. He pops up on the right in that attack and drives over a cross that Jelavic, facing away from goal on the edge of the box, welts miles wide on the volley.
45+2 min Distin is booked for the merest shove on Valencia. I suppose if you give a foul you have to book Distin, because it was a one-on-one race down the wing, but I'm not sure it was a foul.
45+3 min The resulting free-kick pinballs around the box before Welbeck, running slightly away from goal, heads it just wide from six yards. That was a decent chance, and the last touch of a fascinating half.
Half time: Manchester United 1-1 Everton As things stand, the title is in both United and City's hands. See you in 10 minutes for the second half.
That was Wayne Rooney's 179th goal for United, which puts him fourth on the all-time list, level with George Best and Dennis Viollet. Just Jack Rowley, Denis Law and
Ralph Milne Sir Bobby Charlton to go.
"Have Jelavic and Cisse disproved the unexamined orthodoxy that there's no value in the January transfer window?" says Gary Naylor. "Assertions like that do the rounds – entirely evidence-free – and are accepted as fact. Are there any others that rile MBMers as much as that one riles me?"
"The 6th minute's Jose Mourinho 'taught English football that points in August were worth the same as points in May'?" sniffs Mac Millings. "Even I could have told them that. If only I'd taken that opportunity back in the early 90s to learn loads of European languages and become Bobby Robson's chauffeur or whatever, that could have been me winning the La Liga/Champions' League double, beating Barcelona in the final after watching Messi stumble over his own reputation as he ran up to take the final penalty of the shootout. How different things could have been. I certainly wouldn't be emailing you, that's for damn straight. Not as often, anyway."
46 min United kick off from right to left. Within the first minute of the half, Evra is booked for something or other.
47 min "Distin is a microcosm of Everton," says Frankie Bond. "Consistently excellent, largely underrated but never quite good enough to reach the very top." Yep, you could describe almost all of this Everton XI in that way. And maybe even the manager. They are one of the Premier League's most admirable teams.
48 min Everton have started the second half as they started the first, in the United half.
49 min "I think the thing that riles me, though it isn't quite the same, is the line that 'away goals count double'," says Mavis Cruet. "Far from being evidence free, it is not true in black and white! It is a bit irrelevant in the context of a league game mind." Imagine if they did count double. You could go through by losing 7-4 on aggregate, with a 4-0 defeat at home and a 4-3 win away.
50 min Danny Welbeck hasn't done much today, or in recent weeks really. Maybe it's mental fatigue at the end of his first full season at United. Either way, today might be a Javier Hernandez day – as it was in this fixture on the same weekend last year. United need something to happen as they've started the half poorly.
53 min The atmosphere is awful, and that isn't helping United as they try to pick up where they left off at half time. A superb link up between Evra and Nani ends with Evra's cut-back being cleared by Heitinga.
54 min "Re: your point in the 49th minute," says Barry Ragin. "You might want to check your math(s)."
I am an idiot. I know what I meant. I can't think straight because of the pain in my metacarpal.
GOAL! Manchester United 2-1 Everton (Welbeck 57) Told you Welbeck was looking tired. He has just scored a glorious goal to give United the lead. Nani headed a loose ball down to Welbeck, who was lurking in the D. He shifted the ball away from a woolly challenge by Heitinga and shaped an emphatic curler into the top of the net with his right foot. What a fantastic goal. Everton, and Phil Neville in particular, are unhappy because Pienaar was down yet play went on. He had stopped play in the first half when Evans was down, at a time when Everton were breaking three on two.
59 min Neville is booked for an overzealous tackle on someone or other.
GOAL! Manchester United 3-1 Everton (Nani 61) Another gorgeous goal from United! This was sensational. A slick move on the right ended with Carrick feeding a crisp pass into Welbeck on the edge of the area, with his back to goal. He played a lovely first-time through pass around the corner for Nani, who ran off Distin, took a touch and dinked the ball gently over the advancing Howard. That was not unlike his excellent goal at home to Spurs in the 2009-10 title race.
62 min That was almost a fourth for United. A good flick from Rooney puts Welbeck in on goal at a tightish angle, and his shot is turned behind for a corner by Howard.
63 min What a strange game this has been. Everton have been the better side for at least 50 minutes, yet they trail 3-1.
64 min Crikey, James McFadden lives. He has come on for Leon Osman, who has blurred vision after a clash of heads with Patrice Evra.
GOAL! Manchester United 3-2 Everton (Fellaini 67) Yet another superb goal, this time from Fellaini. McFadden played the ball wide to Hibbert, who swerved over a fast, flat cross towards Fellaini, unmarked 10 yards from goal. He contorted his body expertly to smash a low volley that beat De Gea for pace and went through him into the net.
68 min Pienaar draws a decent, tumbling save from De Gea with a placed curler from the edge of the box.
69 min The game lurches to the other end, and Rooney's low shot from the D is straight at Howard.
GOAL! Manchester United 4-2 Everton (Rooney 70) Keep up at the back: it's now 4-2 to United. This is another brilliant goal, reminiscent of Yorke and Cole's legendary link up in the Nou Camp. Valencia played an angled ball in from the right towards Welbeck; he ran over the ball and span off his man to meet a first-time pass from Rooney. Welbeck then squared it back to Rooney, who swept it across Howard and into the corner. That was just a wonderful goal.
71 min "Despite the goal, I do agree with you about Welbeck," says Jaker Ahmed. "He has lots of quality (sinewy strength, pace, touch, etc.). But at the start of his United career, they were allied to sloppiness. As this season initially progressed, he'd seemingly added a consistency to his game, but he has slipped a little back into early career mode again. Still, I assume I'm echoing you in making an observation rather than a criticism – for a guy who is just starting a top level career, he's making hay very nicely and could become genuinely excellent and accomplished." Yep, I'd say he's the best English No9 around (if you count Rooney as a No10). If he improves his finishing and becomes more ruthless he will be superb, because his movement is exceptional and he is capable of sudden moments of brilliance, three of which we've seen in the last 15 minutes.
74 min Hands up who expected six goals today? Yeah, course you did.
76 min Scholes dithers in his own area and is robbed by Fellaini. He shifts it to Jelavic, and he spanks a shot into the side netting from a tightish angle.
77 min "'Everton have been the better side for at least 50 minutes, yet they trail 3-1'," quotes Ric Arthur. "That's been the tale of United's season, hasn't it? If they win the Premiership (and I don't say they will), they will surely be one of the most unconvincing champions ever, having been outplayed in large parts of almost every game. They just have this knack of scoring goals even when they look quite underwhelming. There goes another one as I write: 4-2 United."
It wasn't much different last season, although United's points total is higher this year. They played superbly in the first month of the season, but since then it has, with a few exceptions, largely been about mental strength. I wonder how many of the wins in the last three seasons have come from the credit they put in the bank during the Ronaldo years. Also, you could argue, legitimately I think, that Sir Alex Ferguson is in the form of his life in terms of maximising limited resources. Apart from Jose Mourinho, nobody else would have got close to winning a title with this squad and all the injuries they have had. It will be a staggering achievement if they do it. I wouldn't go along with them being unconvincing, not with 90 points (which they will get if they win it).
79 min Everton are having a lot of the ball, and the game doesn't quite feel over in the way it usually does when United have a two-goal lead at home. You know what they don't say: 4-2's a dangerous lead.
81 min Evra hits the post! Rafael put in an undefendable, bouncing cross between defenders and goalkeeper; it beat everyone except Evra at the far post, who dived in to thump a header against the post from a couple of yards. He should have scored.
GOAL! Manchester United 4-3 Everton (Jelavic 83) Another twist in this ridiculous game. Neville's lofted straight pass towards Fellaini attracted both Evans and Ferdinand towards the ball at the near post. Evans headed it onto the back of Ferdinand's head, from where it looped towards the centre of goal for Jelavic, unmarked, to lash an accomplished half volley into the net from 12 yards.
84 min Tim Cahill comes on for Sylvain Distin, so Phil Neville goes to left back. Everton came up back from 3-1 down in injury time against United last season; they have an age now, six whole minutes plus added time.
GOAL! Manchester United 4-4 Everton (Pienaar 85) I'm speechless. What an astonishing turnaround. It's 4-4! Pienaar played a short pass to Neville and ran infield, at which point Neville played the ball into Fellaini on the left side of the area. He ignored Evans, who wasn't tight enough, and turned to play a square pass across goal for Pienaar to slide it first time under De Gea from eight yards. This is simply amazing. It was poor defending from Rafael, who allowed Pienaar to run off him. Fitba? Effing hell.
86 min Phil Jones replaces Paul Scholes. United need a goal or the title will be in Manchester City's hands.
87 min That Patrice Evra miss at 4-2 seemed like a footnote when it happened. It means a whole lot more now.
88 min Everton could win this. Jelavic runs at Ferdinand and curls over the bar from 25 yards.
89 min Another United substitution: Javier Hernandez replaces Antonio Valencia.
90 min Rooney's shot from 25 yards is blocked by Cahill and Jagielka and then Jagielka heads Nani's cross behind. There will be five minutes of added time. It's as much celebration time as injury time.
90+1 min Nani's right-wing cross is headed wide by the backpedalling Evans.
90+2 min Where's Federico Macheda when you need him? United are camped in Everton's half and have a free kick on the right ... Fellaini heads it half clear and then Rooney overhits a cross for a goal kick.
90+4 min Ninety seconds to go. Everton have everyone behind the ball and are looking relatively – relatively – comfortable.
90+5 min: WHAT A SAVE FROM TIM HOWARD! Rafael's cross is half cleared to Ferdinand, who hits a superb first-time effort from the edge of the area with his left foot. It's flying into the top of the net, but Howard leaps high to his right to fingertip the ball over the bar. That's a fine save.
Full time: Manchester United 4-4 Everton That's the end of a match that defies description – at least on a family website – and logic. United walk off with the collective face on, as well they should because they might have lost the title today. They defended woefully, and missed Nemanja Vidic as much as you can ever miss a single footballer. He won the return fixture on his own in November, and would have dealt with Everton's crosses and long passes all day. Jonny Evans had an untimely stinker; he wasn't alone in the United defence.
The title is still in United's hands – but now it's also in Manchester City's. If they win their last four games they will be champions. Then again, if United get a draw at the Etihad next Monday they will stay in charge of the championship. It should be quite the football match. But it won't be as dramatic as this one. Thanks for your emails; I'll leave you with this appraisal of the match from a United fan. Bye.