Steven Pienaar's late strike against Manchester United means the destiny of the Premier League title is up in the air again
Raise a glass to Steven Pienaar if you are a member of the Manchester City congregation: the South African's late equaliser had the joy levels of the Blue half of this parish surging again. With City kicking off later in the day at Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sir Alex Ferguson's men knew they had a chance to pile more pressure on their rivals by claiming a 74th league victory over Everton. Instead they went behind to Nikica Jelavic's looping header with 11 minutes remaining of the first half and, although Wayne Rooney equalised just before the break, at this stage the destiny of the championship was still in the balance, depending on who would win all of their remaining games. Danny Welbeck, Nani and Rooney's second appeared to have killed that dream for City – despite Marouane Fellaini's 67th-minute strike – before Jelavic made it 4-3 and then Pienaar stepped up to score what could be the season's most pivotal goal.
By the close the answer was an emphatic yes, with the Portuguese scoring for the second Sunday running – United's third here following the fourth in the 4-0 win over Aston Villa - while also being a creative force. Of the furore surrounding Young winning penalties while going down dubiously, Sir Alex Ferguson, below with David Moyes, had said beforehand: "Ashley is in danger of being targeted as a diver. It doesn't take much for the press to get a bandwagon rolling these days and in my view it's quite unfair." Still, the Scot was moved to leave Young out – perhaps to freshen his side up, perhaps in reaction to the winger's actions – to allow Nani a first start since 4 March. An impressive display followed that included the 39th-minute cross for Rooney's first header and he then flipped a superb finish past Tim Howard in the 60th minute.
The 33-year-old had again been performing like the Cool Hand Luke of the United defence until the frantic closing minutes. Then Ferdinand was involved in the mix-up with Jonny Evans that allowed Jelavic's second to pull Everton back to 4-3 and he may scold himself for not picking up Pienaar for the South African's equaliser five minutes from the end of normal time. Often matched with Fellaini, the veteran's vision allowed him to cut out a Jelavic cross on 16 minutes as the bushy haired midfielder lurked near David de Gea and his expert foot-in to take the ball off the Croatian after 27 minutes was another illustration of his class. Ferdinand could do nothing about Jelavic's opener or Fellaini's second‑half goal but his involvement (or lack of it) with Everton's last two may pose questions regarding his suitability to again pull on an international shirt at Euro 2012.
The silent partner in the United midfield, the 30-year-old's metronomic passing attracts fewer plaudits than Paul Scholes, his collaborator, gets. For Ferguson he is the "unsung" hero who comes good as the season enters its reckoning stage and who can turn a game – as well as allowing Scholes to play. After 31 minutes Carrick produced a sublime moment: a sweeping 70-yard pass on the right-to-left diagonal that landed perfectly into the gallop of Nani as he moved into space near Howard's goal. There was also a slide‑rule ball skimmed out to Antonio Valencia on the opposing flank after 10 minutes that had Sylvain Distin stretching and conceding the throw-in. But, there were looser contributions. One misplaced regulation offering had Patrice Evra scrambling and he later produced an aimless punt from a deep-lying position that gave possession too easily to Everton as he found John Heitinga. With United dropping two vital points, one verdict is that Carrick did not do enough to shape this afternoon for his team.
Why not? In Nikica Jelavic they have a red-hot striker – his two goals here were the seventh and eighth of a nascent Everton career – as David Moyes' men proved they still teem with spirit despite the bitter disappointment handed them last weekend. Then, at Wembley, Andy Carroll's late header for Liverpool allowed Everton's Merseyside rivals to win 2-1 in the dying moments of their FA Cup semi-final to pose the following question: would the eight days to this Old Trafford encounter prove to be too much stewing time or sufficient for Moyes and his men to cleanse their system? The evidence throughout showed the latter to be true. Early on Jelavic and Fellaini were bright and it was Distin who spurned the best chance of the match thus far from a corner after 20 minutes. This point at the Theatre of Dreams puts them two ahead of Liverpool as Evertonians dream of a summer of bragging over Kenny Dalglish's men.