Manchester United 1 - 1 Everton
This really was tantalisingly close to what would have been a hugely important win. Having clung to a 1-0 lead handed to them by Phil Jagielka’s first goal since May 2015, Everton were within touching distance of a second win at Old Trafford in a little over three years. Unfortunately, the time added on by abysmal referee Neil Swarbrick proved to be a bridge too far for the Blues and Ashley Williams’s goal-denying handball gifted the equaliser to Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Manchester United will feel as though they got their just desserts for their ceaseless pressure during the closing stages, a period when they peppered the visitors’ area with a succession of long balls. It was a strategy devoid of subtlety — more bet365 Stadium fare than “Theatre of Dreams” — but with the veteran Swede and Maroune Fellaini in their ranks and a host of red-shirted players looking to pick up the second ball, it ultimately proved successful.
Yet Everton, who were full value for the slender lead they took into half-time, could well have won this game with a bit more composure on the counter-attack, particularly late in the second half when United were pouring forward and their defence was one well-placed pass away from being torn open for a decisive second goal.
That they didn’t was partly due to Romelu Lukaku’s single-mindedness (some might say greed) and partly due to more mis-steps by Ronald Koeman who arguably got the starting XI spot on but erred badly in electing to withdraw Kevin Mirallas as early as he did (the player was not happy at all with the decision) and later throwing Dominic Calvert-Lewin on up front when the pace and directness of either Enner Valencia of Ademola Lookman would surely have been a better option.
Lacking natural speed or trickery — and, it seemed, any studs on his boots! — Calvert-Lewin unfortunately offered nothing in support of a visibly exhausted Lukaku who let the side down himself with some awful ball retention towards the end. With the ball not sticking at all up front for Everton, United were able to maintain their aerial bombardment from deep and from the flanks, leading to Williams blocking Luke Shaw’s goal-bound shot with an obviously out-stretched arm. The result was a spot-kick for Ibrahimovic from which he finally beat the unlucky Joel Robles.
It was a desperately disappointing end to a laudable defensive stand by an Everton defence that was marshalled superbly by Jagielka and Williams, both of whom belied their advancing years with excellent individual performances. To their right, Mason Holgate had also been mostly stellar as a right back deputising for Seamus Coleman, while Idrissa Gueye and Gareth Barry had done their part to keep United at bay until the last minute of the match.
Everton had started the game as though they meant to put the disappointment of Saturday’s Merseyside derby behind them. But it was Jose Mourinho’s men who almost struck first after just five minutes when Ibrahimovic capitalised on Holgate’s missed tackle and looked to fire a shot across Robles into the far corner of the goal but was denied by a brilliant saving tackle from Williams.
A long spell of pressure from the Blues eventually ended with them taking the lead after 21 minutes, though. A free kick on the left flank ultimately ended at Mirallas’s feet on the far side of the area and he forced David de Gea into blocking his shot from a tight angle behind for a corner.
From that set-piece, Williams’s looping header caused confusion between the goalkeeper and Marcos Rojo and Jagielka astutely flicked the ball behind him, through De Gea’s legs and into the net.
That drew an almost immediate response from United, although Lukaku had the chance when he dragged a shot wide in the 26th minute. With referee Swarbrick in wholly unpredictable mood, however, Everton unwisely courted trouble just outside their own box when Mirallas inexplicably hauled Jessie Lingard down and handed Daley Blind a shooting opportunity from 20-odd yards. His direct free kick was accurate and looking like it could creep inside the post but Robles clawed it out the air, spilled the ball as he collided with the post and Ander Herrera could only fire the rebound off the face of the bar.
The Toffees had a terrific chance to make it 2-0 when the United defence opened up in front of Lukaku and Mirallas made a great run into oceans of space to his right but the Belgian striker ignored his compatriot and went it alone instead, his shot being charged down by a defender and Tom Davies’s first-time rocket off the rebound striking Mirallas on its way to goal.
Six minutes before the interval, Herrera arrowed a shot seeking the corner of Robles’s goal but once more he flew across his line and made a finger-tip save to foil the Spanish midfielder with a top-drawer save.
Where Everton had been strong in the first half, they began the second in less convincing fashion and it would set the tone for the remainder of the game, where they were less sure in possession, lacking conviction in the final third and increasingly reliant on a defence that would be augmented by Matthew Pennington midway through.
Another ill-advised foul in a dangerous area outside the Blues’ area gave United their first sight of goal when Barry cynically checked Ashley Young, most likely out of frustration that the referee had taken no action when Rojo caught Idrissa Gueye with a potentially dangerous challenge just seconds earlier.
Paul Pogba, on as a half-time substitute, connected with the resulting free kick but saw his header come back off the crossbar with Robles beaten.
Things threatened to boil over when Mirallas, who looked to have the devil in him all evening, stole the ball at a drop-ball when the home team had expected him to do the sporting thing and kick it back to De Gea. That prompted an aggressive reaction from Young who was booked, but only after a word in the referee’s ear from his assistant.
The pressure from Mourinho’s men appeared to have told with 20 minutes to go, though. Lingard swung a cross in from the right which Ibrahimovic wrestled Pennington to reach but while he headed home off Robles, his celebrations were cut short by a marginal but probably correct offside call by the linesman.
And the same due combined a minute from the end of regulation time for what looked to be a legal carbon copy but Ibrahimovic headed over when he looked odds-on to score.
In between, Ross Barkley, who had veered in the match from busily effective to profligate and wanting too much on the ball, had narrowly missed finding Idrissa Gueye in the centre of one breakaway and then taken far too long to try and pick out Lukaku from another.
Lukaku himself had gone on one of his trademark rampaging runs where he powered past Rojo down the right flank but had burned himself out by the time he reached De Gea and the keeper was able to block his right-foot shot. Barkley had joined him in support and would made an ideal candidate for a surprise move — i.e. Lukaku not going for glory — but the striker didn’t ever seem to consider the option.
Two more counter-attack chances came as United were throwing men and the ball forward as time ticked on but awful ball control from Lukaku and then Calvert-Lewin mean that both opportunities to either advance and score the killer second or simply run the clock down in possession simply evaporated.
There was a crushing inevitability about the way United punished Everton for failing to do that in the last minute of stoppage time via Ibrahimovic’s calmly-struck penalty. Barry’s clearing header dropped only as far as Shaw, his looping header back into the box was prodded away from Fellaini by Jagielka, again to Shaw who bobbled a right-foot shot that was heading towards the bottom corner if neither Robles nor Williams could stop it. The ‘keeper may have saved it; the defender did, but illegally and he was sent off for deliberate handball.
Such are the fine margins of Everton’s season and what looks very likely to be the difference between a close tussle for the top four or five and a seventh-place finish. In what was a pulsating game at times, United looked ragged and vulnerable enough at the back, particularly when the match opened up at the end, that any kind of clinical attacking from the Blues would surely have resulted in a second goal.
Again, you couldn’t help feeling that Valencia, who combined to such great effect with Lukaku against Hull last month, or Lookman, who would have enjoyed himself against the shaky-looking Bailly, would have been better options off the bench than Calvert-Lewin. Koeman clearly sees something in the young striker to have instilled so much faith so early in his Everton career but he had a cameo to forget at what was a crucial juncture of a vital fixture in the context of the Blues’ season.
There may yet be some twists and turns in the final seven games and the Blues could put more pressure on their immediate rivals with back-to-back home games but this must go down as an opportunity frustratingly missed.
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