Everton were back in action for real tonight with a high-profile season opener under the Goodison lights against Manchester United. No injury concerns for David Moyes, but new signing Kevin Mirallas, paraded to the crowd before kick-off, was ineligible to play, while Steven Naismith's expected debut didn't come until almost the end of the game.
An attacking epiphany for David Moyes from the off was never on the cards, despite the purchase of more attack-minded players: Steven Naismith started on the bench so that Moyes could stick with his tried and trusted 4-5-1 formation with its Keep it Tight and Nick One philosophy fully intact.
Marouane Fellaini had shaken off a slight groin problem and the thigh strain that kept Darron Gibson out of Ireland's friendly with Serbia had also cleared up. The only real question mark was the central-defensive partnership, with Heitinga this time on the benchBut all the media hype was focussed on the debut of Robin van Persie for Manchester United, who also started on the bench; perhaps deflecting any pressure away from the Blues, who came out and played some good football to show up the Mancs and above all did not allow them to gain revenge for key points lost last season.
An early free-kick for a foul on Pienaar was swung in by Baines and bullet-headed wide by a diving Osman. Nani then broke past Baines but Distin had the catching of him and knocked the interception behind for a clear goal kick that Nani vehemently protested. Nani then fouled and got the yellow card his petulance fully deserved.
Jelavić won the first corner with a good run down the right, and Baines swung it in but Fellaini was blocked as Jelavić was grappled illegally by Vidic.
United got some decent possession and sailed past Gibson, letting Rooney be the next Manc tracked down and blocked by the impressive Distin.
Fellaini was playing as the target man for hoofballs lofted from the back. When Everton tried to play it forward on the ground, a dreadful first touch by Pienaar sent the ball careening out of play. A disgusting foul from behind on Gibson by Scholes saw him earn yellow.
Fellaini did brilliantly to dribble in on goal but selfishly tried to score himself from an impossibly narrow angle and hit the post instead of centering for Jelavić. Jelavić was then fouled by an increasingly dirty United side who thought nothing of cheating and fouling at every opportunity.
Fellaini cleverly won another free-kick wide right that was superbly delivered right on De Gea who punched under massive pressure from Fellaini but then collapsed in a heap for no good reason, with no whistle: more shameless cheating.
Everton were sitting back a little with 10 behind the ball on the rollover, soaking up the inevitable United pressure. Distin and Jagielka had to be alert when Welbeck tried an audacious flick. Osman was easily dispossessed to allow another Utd attack and Nani fired one that curled away from Howard and wide.
Some absolutely fantastic passing got Jelavić in behind but De Gea came out effectively to stop him. De Gea punched the corner out but then had to palm over at a stretch as Pienaar headed it back in just under the bar. From the ensuing corner, Fellaini pivoted again, looking for glory, but smashed it wide across goal.
Pienaar got called for barely clipping Scholes and Rooney curled a free-kick brilliantly but it looked like going wide, and may have needed Hoaward's equally brilliant fingertip save.
Nervy moments in the Everton area as some pinball thankfully ended with an offside call. At the other end, a hoofball nicely chested down by Fellaini was fired wide by Pienaar.
Then an incredible sequence of play on 32 minutes that was well worth an Everton goal, Jelavić having his cross deflected behind for a corner that came to nothing.
Fellaini was being absolutely masterful, wining another free-kick that led to intricate play blocked in the United area. Baines waited for the ball and allowed Scholes to brush past him: no penalty.
Evra did create a worrying chance for Rooney that he fired straight at Howard. For United, who were dominating possession, another chance saw Welbeck drive just wide.
Another fantastic headed layoff by Fellaini saw Osman lash a fierce shot straight in over De Gea's head but somehow the heroic United keeper got his hand up to it and batted it away, an incredible reaction save.
Vidic finally got called for one of his many fouls on Jelavić, setting up a great free-kick opportunity for Baines, that forced an incredible save from De Gea after it clipped off Welbeck's shoulder in the wall. The corner was defended away and United set to break quickly but were thankfully called back for a free-kick.
A simple ball in was headed on by Rooney and threatened Howard but he saved solidly to bring a tremendous half of football by Everton, in attack, midfield and defence, to an end.
After the break and it was right back into it, Osman incredibly lashing one off the base of the crossbar with De Gea beaten, and Welbeck at the other end denied buy a late interception. Jagielka had to be alert as the pendulum switched back to United who were attacking in waves, pushing Everton further back.
As the hour-mark neared, Rooney had a wild shot that flew wide, with both sides trying to penetrate obdurate defences determined not to concede.... But concede they did, a superb Gibson corner and there was Marouane Fellaini, Man of the Match, to position himself in the melee and rise superbly to power in a fantastic downward header that was miles away from a stranded De Gea, and bounced brilliantly on the goal-line as it flew in, just inside the post.
Absolutely fantastic atmosphere at Goodison Park under the lights. It doesn't get any better than this. A brilliant reward for some great determination against the horrible Mancs.
Fellaini won another header off a Baines free-kick but this one was straight at De Gea. But Everton were looking tired as Phil Jagielka had to clear off the line from Scholes, the goal gapping... could they hold out for 25 minutes as Robin van Persie finally came on for Man Utd???
Everton were now totally penned into their area, as Jelavić had to go off with a cut on his face, the ball finally going out for an Everton goal kick to give some brief respite, while Moyes resisted any temptation to break the rhythm of the starting XI he had chosen to go up against his idol's expensive charges.
But on the field, Everton had abrogated any attacking initiative or coherent attempt at possession football, lumped clearances just coming straight back at them again and again with 15 minutes left.
Pienaar almost put Jelavić through as they finally got a brief spell of advanced possession as Ferguson switched out Nani for Young, while the defensive wall still held firm.
Van Persie was starting to get involved and Kagawa came close but Howard was there to block it off the attacker for a goalkick. Finally a change for Everton, Coleman on for Osman, to a great round of applause. Hibbert gave a masterclass on the sliding block as the minutes ticked away and thoughts that the Blues may have weathered the worst of it. But... vigilance required at all times!!!
Baines and Coleman conspired to make for a breakaway but it lacked self-belief as Jelavić went down with cramp and eventually went off, Naismith having to wait and wait for a break in play which would not come.
Coleman broke from the area with the ball at his feet and ran with the ball the full length of the field, losing and then regaining possession into the last minute of normal time, and then being fouled to great applause, as Naismith finally got on the pitch with 4 minutes of added time.
Marouane Fellaini went off to a fantastic reception. Hibbert gave the ball away for a corner in the 94th minute, headed away brilliantly by Distin who collapsed at the end as Goodison erupted.
A tremendous start to the season where in true Olympic spirit, every Everton player gave their all.
Three months and one week after Everton finished 2011-12 with a flourish with that impressive 3-1 win over Newcastle United, the new campaign is upon us.
The European Championships and the London Olympics may have ushered the 2012 close season along a little faster for fans champing at the bit to get the Premier League going again but with the Blues on a run of form normally reserved for Champions League qualifiers, the summer was something of an unwelcome disruption.
Of paramount importance, of course, is the fact that the summer thus far — we cannot, of course, reflect on the transfer window's business in its entirety yet as there are still 12 days to go — has, on the whole, been one of construction rather than destruction for David Moyes, albeit barely.
The number of outgoings from the senior and Academy ranks has reached double figures since May with just Steven Pienaar and Steven Naismith added so far, but in terms of Moyes's first-choice line-up, the team has been improved. What the squad is desperately short on, of course, is real depth, particularly with a couple of players potentially going out on loan.
Jack Rodwell's departure was disappointing given his early promise, but there is no question that if the manager can add some real quality to the squad before the 31 August deadline, then the exit of an under-performing asset still finding his way back from a succession of injuries will have been worth it from Everton's point of view.
And, of course, despite all the speculation linking him with a move to Old Trafford, Leighton Baines kicks off 2012-13 as an Everton player.
More good news in the immediate term is that it looks as though Moyes will be able to name his strongest eleven for the high-profile season-opener against Manchester United under the Goodison lights on Monday evening.
Marouane Fellaini has shaken off a slight groin problem and the thigh strain that kept Darron Gibson out of Ireland's friendly with Serbia has also cleared up.
Given the small numbers in the squad, the line-up for United mostly picks itself, with the only real question marks being the central-defensive partnership, who plays right back and whether Naismith will play from the start in the Tim Cahill role.
Phil Neville's leadership and experience may get him the nod over Tony Hibbert at fullback and given how well Sylvain Distin and John Heitinga performed together, they might be the favoured duo in defence despite Phil Jagielka's goalscoring exploits for England in midweek.
Both defensive decisions will probably rest on where Fellaini is deployed and whether Heitinga or Neville are pushed into central midfield to provide more brawn. Fellaini excelled when pushed up behind Jelavić in the 4-4 draw at Old Trafford in April but Naismith's pre-season form linking up with his old Rangers strike partner may persuade Moyes to include both from the start.
For his part, Sir Alex Ferguson, already without injured trio Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans, looks to have suffered further depletion to his defence. Rio Ferdinand is a late doubt after reportedly picking up a groin strain in training on Friday which could sideline him for a month.
That could mean an unorthodox central defensive partnership of Nemanja Vidic and Michael Carrick for United for whom all eyes will be on new signing Robin van Persie. The Dutchman has had success against the Blues for Arsenal but Moyes will be looking to stifle his influence and ensure that the Red Devils' new £23m signing has a quiet debut.
It goes without saying that a flying start at a stage where the big teams have yet to hit their stride would be a fantastic tonic for Moyes's boys and really help get some momentum going instead of the usual slow start.
The Blues' recent record against the biggest clubs on opening day is not great but Everton have the firepower — and a potential 12th man in the stands — to put an early dent in United's attempts to recapture the title from neighbours City.
The anticipation built up over the summer after the impressive finish to last season will surely only add to the excitement of kick-off to the new campaign and that should ensure a raucous Grand Old Lady under the floodlights and in front of Sky's live cameras.
|Premier League Scores|
|Premier League Table|
|2012-13 Reports Index|
|Osman (80' Coleman)|
|Fellaini (90+2' Heitinga)|
|Jelavić (89' Naismith)|
|Subs not used|
|MAN UNITED (4-4-2)|
|Cleverley (85' Anderson)|
|Welbeck (68' Van Persie)|
|Subs not used|
|3||West Bromwich Albion||3|
|7||West Ham United||3|
|19||Queens Park Rangers||0|