United went 12 points clear thanks to an unyielding defensive performance and goals from Ryan Giggs and Robin Van Persie
Manchester United move 12 points clear with 12 games to play – their biggest league in the lead since 2001 – and move closer to their 20th league title. They were never fluent but they did a number on Everton, and a superb defensive performance exorcised many of the demons of last season. There will be no hairdryer for the defenders tonight, just some rewardingly weary limbs after a job extremely well done. Everton's admirable cockroaches kept coming, as they do, but United were unyielding at the back. Crucially, Marouane Fellaini barely had a chest or a head, never mind a kick. Thanks for your emails; night.
90 min Rooney does well to get above Heitinga at the far post and head behind for a corner. There will be three minutes of added time. Vidic heads the corner clear. That's not news any more, is it?
89 min Gary Neville gives the Man of the Match award to Rafael for shutting down Everton's left side. High praise indeed, coming from him, and a nice accolade for Rafael ahead of the biggest challenge of his career.
87 min A United corner leads to an Everton break, and eventually Neville's cross is headed clear. I didn't see who cleared it, but if in doubt assume it was Vidic. There has probably been no better down-and-dirty centre-back in world football in modern times. This is just his kind of game, and he has been the Man of the Match.
85 min Fellaini is booked for a hack at Cleverley. Born of frustration. United have done an emphatic job on him today. In a sense he should leave the field happy; very few players get this much tactical attention from Sir Alex Ferguson.
84 min "It's amazing how much Manchester United's defensive shape has improved since the return of Vidic," says Gary Naylor. "Does he tell his defenders where to stand, when and where to run, how to track midfielders? Everton have scored against most teams this season, but seem to have red shirts blocking them all over the pitch and not much idea what to do about it."
You could make a decent argument that he's United's best-ever centre back. Mind you, you could make an argument that Pat McGibbon is United's best-ever centre back.
82 min Chris Smalling comes on for Jonny Evans – I don't know if that's an injury precaution – and makes a mistake with his first touch, giving the ball to Jelavic 20 yards out. He hits a crisp, deflected shot towards the near post, and the unsighted De Gea gets down smartly to his left to push it away. That's a deceptively good save.
81 min A rare chance for United on the break. Van Persie controlled a goalkick and hooked it over his own shoulder for Giggs, in the right of the box. He returned a square pass to Van Persie, who sidefooted well wide of the far post from 15 yards. That was a good chance for a player of his class.
80 min It was around this stage in last season's fixture that it all went wrong. Whereas then the game did not feel won, even at 4-2, it does now. Everton are having lots of the ball but aren't creatibng anything.
79 min "Is it necessary to tell us that Manchester kick off from right to left (or left to right for that matter)?" says Terry Lloyd. No, you're right, it isn't, because no words ever painted no pictures.
78 min "Glorious Glasgow Rangers Legend and new Sunday Times columnist Graeme Souness also thinks that Fergie will stick Jones on Ronaldo, so you're in good company Rob!" says Ryan Dunne. "Although wouldn't it be great to have a totally leftfield selection? There's surely a couple of Joys of Sixes in this area; The Joy of Six: Managerial Masterstrokes, and The Joy of Six: Disastrous Managerial Gambles. I'd imagine there'd be some examples that, while they were happening, straddled the line between the two (benching Beckham in 02/03?)."
We've done those in the past I think, and Fergie was included in both for, from memory, Danny Wallace at Arsenal and omitting Mark Hughes at West Ham. Benching Beckham was logical and correct – Solskjaer was simply a better right-winger than Beckham at that stage.
77 min Osman gets away from Evra on the right of the box but then mishits a cross that is claimed by the leaping De Gea.
76 min A decent spell of Everton pressure, but it's all in front of United, as it has been for almost the entire game. United's defensive discipline and concentration have been excellent.
74 min "I know Anichebe is playing as a classic No 9, but shouldn't he have faced goal at least once during the match?" says Andrew Patrick. "I think he was even running down the field backwards."
73 min Jelavic's low shot from the right side of the box is kicked away by De Gea. It wouldn't have counted anyway as he had been flagged offside, albeit erroneously.
71 min "Just look what happens when you write that nothing is happening," says Stuart Cox. "Go on, write that again please."
THERE WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER GOAL SCORED. NOT JUST IN THIS GAME, EVER. THAT'S IT. SHOW'S OVER FOLKS. GO AND WATCH HOMELAND FOR THE REST OF YOUR DAYS BECAUSE FOOTBALL IS DONE.
70 min Another Everton substitution, with Mirallas replaced by Steven Naismith.
69 min "Who do you think will be Man City manager come August?" says Michael Meagher. "I have been assuming (since long before yesterday) that it won't be Mancini. A good Mourinho project? I'm really hoping that Rooney scores so that we can get an antidote to the nor-celebrating-against-a-former-club nonsense."
Preach on. Football is full of risible nonsense these days, but there's not more risible than that disingenuous guff. As for City, I'm not sure. I don't think it'll be Mancini or Mourinho, but who else is there? Klopp? Benitez? European football is a bit like a property chain at the moment, with so much depending on Ferguson.
68 min Now there's a chance for Everton. Baines gets away from Rafael down the left and tries to cut the ball back for Osman 15 yards from goal. Carrick does what Carrick does, covering expertly to clear the danger.
67 min That lead to another corner, and this time Howard made a wonderful save. The corner was headed clear to Cleverley, 22 yards out; he slashed across a technically brilliant right-footed volley that was heading for the top of the net when Howard leapt to his left to get the merest fingertip over the bar with his wrong right hand.
66 min An astonishing let-off for Everton. A right-wing corner was flicked on at the near post and headed towards goal by Evans, six yards out. Howard made a good, instinctive save – it was fairly close to him – and then the ball ran all the way across the line, with Evans unable to force it through a posse of defenders. In the end his stabbed shot from four yards was cleared off the line by Jelavic.
63 min Nothing is happening. Don't shoot the MBMessenger.
61 min "I'd say the difference between Giggs and Bale – whatever the latter would go on to achieve in football – is between a great footballer blessed, in his pomp, with a devastating turn of pace and a great athlete who happens to be a rather fine footballer to boot," says Phil Podolsky. "Which makes Bale a perfect suit for Real Madrid, a team whose attack under Mourinho is largely based on that kind of players. An observation largely lifted from your own book on how the once beautiful game just ain't that beauts no more."
That's an interesting distinction. I see what you mean. I suppose you might say that Giggs twists blood whereas Bale busts lungs, though I don't know that's entirely fair to Bale. At the moment, though, Bale has the potential to achieve a level of greatness beyond any British player in the last few decades. Which obviously isn't to say he will do that, lest you foam all over your spangly new keyboard.
59 min It's been an uneventful second half so far, lots of worthy but confused endeavour.
57 min Hello again. Sorry about that, I needed a nap.
56 min Ch-ch-changes: Carrick replaces the characteristically hobbling Jones for United, Everton bring Jelavic on for Anichebe.
50 min Rob is enduring some technical trouble as punishment for sins in a past life. The score remains the same, and he will be back with you, bright-eyed and bushy-haired, in the next few minutes.
47 min I've just emerged from a malodorous DeLorean and can reveal Sir Alex Ferguson's starting XI on Wednesday: De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Jones, Carrick, Cleverley, Young; Rooney; Van Persie. You heard it here last.
46 min Manchester kick off the second half from right to left.
"'The Premier League got rubbish'?" sniffs Matthew Coate of my comment in the 32nd minute. "Some of us prefer to call it 'parity'."
Anyway, you've completely missed the point, for reasons I don't have time to articulate as the second half is about to begin.
"Hey Rob," says Ty Kreft, "watching the match with me 10-year-old son, Aiden, and he wanted me to look up why the players are wearing black armbands today. This is my version of lazy research. Do you know what they're for?"
This is the first United home game since the Munich anniversary.
"Re: Fellaini," says David Flynn. "I would argue that Ronaldo also sleepwalks through large portions of games as well. The only difference is he wakes up three or four times in each game."
Let's him do it on Wednesday against Phil 'The Sleeping Pill' Jones, eh?
Manchester United don't really deserve to be two goals ahead, but they are and they are also within leering distance of a 12-point lead.
The goal came from Rafael, who wandered infield to the centre circle, played a one-two with Rooney and then, with Everton playing a suicidally high line, stabbed a nice through pass for Van Persie. He ran through on Howard, and went round him to the right as he had earlier in the match. This time his got his right-footed shot on target, and the recovering Heitinga could only slide the ball into the net. It was on target anyway so it's Van Persie's goal.
Robin Van Persie gets his goal this time.
43 min "I think Fergie will adopt you as a son if you support United any more in todays MBM," Nikhil Narayanan, weeping at the injustice of it all.
42 min Van Persie, six yards out, starts the motion of sidefooting Rooney's low cross into the net when Heitinga gets a toe on the ball to divert it away. That was really good defending because all his weight was going the other way.
41 min Or an outswinger from Mirallas that is looped towards goal by the head of Fellaini and punched away decisively by De Gea. Ten seconds later he comes to the penalty spot and punches away miserably, straight to Osman 25 yards out. He might have had time to take a touch, but he hit it first time and slashed it well wide of the far post.
40 min United have pulled Rooney wide left, with Giggs infield, such is Everton's dominance at the moment. Rooney clumsily fouls Phil Neville on the right touchline, which means another Baines inswinger.
39 min Jose Mourinho is in the crowd. He won't need any Boots Sleep-Eaze tonight given what he's seen so far.
38 min Mirallas is booked for a very poor lunge at Cleverley. That wasn't a million miles from a red card, and even the endearingly card-shy Mark Halsey had to book him.
37 min "I'd argue that Phil Jones keeping Fellaini quiet isn't that much of an achievement," says Alex Hanton. "Fellaini isn't by any stretch of the imagination consistently good. He tends to sleepwalk through large chunks of games before suddenly snapping into action and doing something outrageously brilliant."
35 min An awful pass from Jones on the halfway line almost leads to an Everton goal. They broke through Fellaini, who played it wide to Mirallas. He sidefooted a cross towards Anichebe, on the six-yard line, but it was slightly behind Anichebe and by the time he turned and then rolled his marker Evans, Rafael had got round to clear for a corner. Had the cross been in front of Anichebe I think he would have got there before Evans and De Gea.
34 min It's curled in by Gibson, not Baines, and United clear.
33 min Everton are having a decent spell, with more of the ball than at any stage in the match. Pienaar is fouled by Giggs after a beautiful turn, which gives Everton a free-kick 25 yards from goal, to the right of centre...
32 min "If it stays like this, Manchester United will be as far ahead of the rest as Liverpool are from a relegation place," says Gary Naylor. "They're not that good are they? Better than the 2011-12 vintage, but surely one of SAF's weaker title-winning sides. How did this happen?"
The Premier League got rubbish. And Fergie failed last season. Nobody turns failure into fuel quite like him.
29 min The ever brilliant David De Gea makes a fine save to keep United ahead. After a nice move from Everton, Osman picked up a bouncing ball 25 yards out and welted it towards goal, left to right. It was sneaking in the far corner and De Gea dived a long way to his left to palm it behind with both hands. The resulting corner leads to a scramble in the box, and Mirallas's shot from eight yards is blocked magnificently by Vidic.
28 min "Giggs has still goddit," says Sam Abrahams. "Or at least some of it. But where do you stand on – staying with the '99 comparison theme – a 20-something Giggs versus 23 year-old compatriot and (debatably) man-of-the-moment Bale?"
That's an interesting one. Bale seems more consistent and scores more goals, but Giggs scared the bejesus out of Europe's best teams, particularly Juventus, the best of them all. I know Bale destroyed Inter, but I think we need to see him a bit more in Europe before we judge him. The Giggs of 1996-98 would run riot in the 2013 Premier League.
26 min Jones has done a good job on Fellaini so far. I'm not quite sure how, because you spend half these MBMs looking at the computer screen rather than the match, but it's fair to say Fellaini's influence thus far has been negligible.
25 min Phil Neville's high cross is kept alive by Anichebe, and Osman's shot on the turn dribbles through to De Gea.
23 min "RVP's heroics this year have been cleverly masking the fact that he has no right foot!" says Matt Dony. "Mind you, nor does Giggs, and it's hardly been a hindrance to him (comedy miss vs Arsenal notwithstanding)."
Indeed. We should do the Joy of Six: one-footed players and the Joy of Six: two-footed players. The latter would have to include Andreas Brehme, who scored penalties in different World Cups with different feet! That is basically the coolest thing ever, with the possible exception of Mac Millings.
22 min Everton are in the game without really being in the game, if that makes sense. It doesn't, does it. Their main threat just now is the inswinging corners of Baines; that one, swirling right under the crossbar, was nutted away decisively by Vidic with De Gea still on his line.
20 min Duncan Edwards, teed up by Valencia, slashes a left-footed shot hide and wide from 20 yards. The more I think about it, the more I think he will play on Ronaldo in Madrid, with Carrick and Cleverley infield and Young or Kagawa or Giggs left.
19 min United have defended well so far, with Vidic strong against the not inconsiderable units of Fellaini and Anichebe.
17 min "It's not that we should be surprised that Ryan Dunne is newly single..." says Seamus Devlin, "but how could he have got a woman in the first place, as presumably his two main topics of conversation are the GGR and MBM contributions."
16 min "There's also the spectre of Scholes to add in there," says Patrick O'Brien. "Surely he won't be given a last hurrah against Ozil, Alonso & co..."
No chance. He'd be sent off in the warm-up. There's a bit of a worry that he might pick Giggs, mind. His recent form has been good, and he's scored today. It's a game for experience, NQAT.
The goal came from a long chip down the right by Rafael. Valencia headed it infield to Van Persie, who wriggled away from an inadequate challenge by Heitinga and squared it to Giggs in line with the penalty spot. He had all the time in the world to control the ball, invent penicillin, ask Wilfried Zaha what the hell that T-shirt was about and finally hit a precise shot in off the near post with his right foot. It rolled gently along the line and went in off the far post.
Ryan Giggs scores for the 97th league campaign in a row.
12 min "If Cleverley is going to start against Madrid does that make it by far the biggest game of his career so far? He was good against City away this season, but before then I remember him not being given the chance a couple of times against top opposition, so this would be easily the biggest test of how good he is/is going to be, right? I'm still coming down on the side of him not being quite good enough"
He's started most of the big games in the last few months – Chelsea away as well – but yes, this would be the ultimate test of his, er, minerals.
10 min Robin van Persie has missed an open goal! He was played through beautifully by Rooney on the right side of the box, went smoothly round Howard and then, from a tight angle, slapped a shot off the outside of the post with his right foot. There were a couple of defenders sliding towards their own goal but he still had huge chunks to aim at.
8 min Phil Jones is basically man-marking Marouane Fellaini. Somewhere in Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo's bum squeaks.
7 min "Not such a surprise to see Mirallas and Pienaar swapping wings," says Gary Naylor. "Moyes switches them during a match, presumably to stop defenders lining them up. Both have skills that work on either wing – so why not?" Indeed. I'd imagine Ronaldo and Di Maria will do the same on Wednesday.
6 min Everton's first attack leads to a corner on the right wing. Leighton Baines sends in a really good inswinger that is headed away by Vidic. It comes back to Baines, who finds Pienaar in the box, and he has a couple of shots blocked by outrushing defenders. Which is to say, I haven't a clue who blocked it. So sue me!
4 min "I was once dumped," says Mac Millings. Oh hang on, there's more. "By a girl called Gina Arnold after giving her a mixtape which opened with Trumans Water's "Aroma of Gina Arnold". Still, top tune. Although to call it a "tune" might be a stretch."
Mac Millings, the Frank TJ Mackie of the MBM.
3 min A good start from United, who win a free-kick down the left. Rooney swings it in and Howard punches clear.
2 min Everton are playing with Mirallas on the left and Pienaar on the right, a bit of a surprise in view of the success of the Baines/Pienaar partnership.
"Re: Distin: Could you define 'self-mischief'?" says Jen Blackburn. "Or don't. Maybe don't."
1 min Everton kick off from right to left. They are in blue; United are in red. The referee is the peerless Mark Halsey.
"Given that Fergie said today's team won't be anything like the one that turns out on Wednesday can we expect Anderson, Buttner and lindegaard to line up at the Bernabeu?" says Patrick O'Brien. "Or was Alex just being Alex again? I'll be watching this wincing at every tackle!"
When the great man talks about his team selection you should always check under the sauce to see if it's pasta. Most of these players will start on Wednesday. Carrick and Ferdinand should come in, and maybe Young or Kagawa. I wouldn't expect too many other changes. Even allowing for Ferguson's unpredictability in Europe, De Gea, Rafael, Evra, Rooney, Van Persie, one of Vidic and Evans and at least one of Cleverley and Jones will surely start, won't they?
"Hawrite Rob!" says the ever faithful Ryan Dunne. I didn't wake up until after your OBO had finished the other day, but I think its mixtape riff is worth re-upping for today's MBM, save you/us from having to come up with new riff ideas! I think the problem men often make with such tapes is that they over-egg their sensitive, poetry-reading side (Radiohead's Creep, Joy Division's Atmosphere, REM's Hairshirt, U2's Mothers of the Disappeared etc). The trick is to subtly imply that you're a bit of a playa. I'd opt for Dr Dre's Bitches Ain't Shit, Eminem's Superman and, to hint subtly at a romantic side, Rick Ross' I Love My Bitches (all that being said, I am currently single, so caveat emptor!)."
BREAKING NEWS: RYAN DUNNE IS SINGLE. An orderly one, ladies. Thing is, though, yesterday's talk was of a break-up mixtape for a newly heartbroken female. So starting with Bitches Ain't Shit might not be conducive to an enduring friendship.
A late team change
Sir Alex Ferguson has just remembered United are playing Madrid on Wednesday and has pulled Van Persie, Rooney, Vidic, Cleverley and Evra from his team, with Mike Phelan coming in for all five of them Sylvain Distin has committed self-mischief in the warm-up and will be replaced by Johnny Heitinga.
"How scientific do you think the process of deciding who to rest in a game like this is?" says Ethan Dean-Richards. "Because Rafael and Evra seem to have played as many games as Carrick this season or thereabouts, and Van Persie has too. If it's really as important as people think to give players a rest, wouldn't it have developed into a more obviously exact science by now?
Carrick is harder to replace, basically. It's like Nicky Butt missing the 1999 FA Cup final. If Rafael and Evra are injured it would be a big blow, but then he could bring in Jones and Smalling at right-back or Evans at left-back. I think Gary Neville once said Ferguson plans his rotation 10 games ahead, although that doesn't quite tally.
"I'm American so perhaps I'm missing some refined British irony," says Nathan Clark, "but from 38 games wouldn't there be 114 points available rather than the 113 you mentioned in your preamble?" Refined British irony is hilarious but, yes, it was a joke.
There's a lovely feature on Sky right now about the four United strikers in 1998-99, including an interview with the wonderful Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Some people say this season's foursome are stronger. Some people are stupid sometimes. They were the greatest quartet of centre forwards in British football history.
Good news for Rio Ferdinand: he's dropped. That surely means he will start in Madrid. Ferdinand is replaced by Nemanja Vidic in one of only three changes by Sir Alex Ferguson. Phil Jones returns from the mildest dose of shingles in history to replace Michael Carrick, and Ryan Giggs is in for Nani. It's unusual to see Carrick rested on the bench; he's normally either in the starting XI (he was the only person to start the last 10 games of the 2007-08 Double season, for example) or in the doghouse. It shows just how valuable he has become.
Marouane Fellaini is fit for Everton, who make only one change: Phil Neville for Johnny Heitinga. There are potentially 16 past, present and future United players in the starting line-ups. (Okay, there are potentially 22 but you know what I mean. Pipe down, smart guy.)
Manchester United (possible 4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Vidic, Evans, Evra; Jones, Cleverley; Valencia, Rooney, Giggs; Van Persie.
Subs: Amos, Anderson, Smalling, Hernandez, Carrick, Nani, Welbeck.
Revised Everton side (possible 4-4-1-1): Howard; Neville, Jagielka, Heitinga, Baines; Mirallas, Osman, Gibson, Pienaar; Fellaini; Anichebe.
Subs: Mucha, Jelavic, Oviedo, Naismith, Hitzlsperger, Stones, Duffy.
In December 2003, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo start a beautiful friendship.
A league campaign is a marathon not a sprint, yet when we review league campaigns we focus on the sprints within the marathon. In each Premier League season there are 113 points are available from 38 games (didn't even need a calculator for that, so...); the final story is usually told through one or two of those games. In his programme notes for today's match, Sir Alex Ferguson says "If I had to pick out one single match where we lost our title it would have to be that game” – this fixture last season, when Manchester United and Everton drew 4-4 in a deranged encounter.
It has become the game that symbolises United's unprecedented Devonloching of the 2011-12 Premier League title, even though the hubris at Wigan and the cowardice at Manchester City were far less excusable than the haplessness against Everton. Nonetheless, that is the seen as the game that cost United the title; the equivalent fixture this season could be seen as the one that wins them the title. City's alarmingly pathetic surrender at Southampton yesterday means that, if United win, they will go 12 points clear with 12 games to play. Should that happen, even the smartphone-fiddling mutes of Old Trafford will be tempted to sing “And now you're gonna believe us, we're gonna win the league” with Todya-baiting gusto.
The focus of the game has changed because of City's defeat: what was looked a seriously awkward hurdle 24 hours ago now feels either like a freebie – if United lose, status quo – or an opportunity to achieve the physically impossible feat of putting their boot on City's throat while also rubbing City's nose in the dirt. It will still be awkward, mind. Ferguson is likely to have one eye on Madrid – Tinkerbell is never more active than either side of big European games – and no side in English football has lost fewer league games than Everton this season.
It's also the case that Everton, like the reformed bedwetter in Donnie Darko, ARE NOT AFRAID ANYMORE. After winning the first Premier League game between the sides, 3-0 at Old Trafford in 1992, they lost 28 of the next 36 games in all competitions, winning only three. A United win over Everton was up there with death, taxes and punch-ups at weddings.
The victory on penalties in the FA Cup semi-final of 2009 changed things. Since then Everton have beaten United twice, and rattled them with staggering comebacks in the aforementioned 4-4 and also the 3-3 draw at Goodison Park in 2010-11. A win today – unlikely but not beyond the realms – would be their first at Old Trafford since 1992-93, and complete their first league double over United since 1962-63. For whatever it's worth (clue: bugger all) we're staking our last two Rolos on a 1-1 draw and a 2-1 United win.
Kick off, my children and disciples, is at 4pm.