Goodison Park, under the lights, when the big teams come to town. There's nothing like it and in recent seasons it's become an occasion to savour for Evertonians and one to fear for media darlings like the Manchester sides.
The anticipation of the kind of evening that unfolded at the Grand Old Lady was palpable in the days leading up to the Blues' season opener against United — one they've had to wait an extra couple of days for while the rest of the Premier League kicked off their campaigns on Saturday and Sunday— and their heroes delivered as Marouane Fellaini got Everton off to the perfect start to 2012-13.
In seasons past, Duncan Ferguson, so often the man for the big occasion, scored some crucial headed winners against Sir Alex Ferguson; now watching on from the stands, the Big Man saw the Belgian Beast rsse above stand-in defender Michael Carrick and power home the game's only goal just a few minutes short of the hour mark.
In truth, that match-winning strike was just reward for a superb all-round performance. Rio Ferdinand was one of three central defenders missing for United but it's unlikely the visitors would have been able to cope with Fellaini had they been at fill strenth. The big-haired midfielder's display was one that might have yielded more goals had he not clipped the game's first real chance off the post after a marauding run had taken him easily past Carrick and into a one-on-one situation with David de Gea, albeit one made almost impossible by the tight angle.
He would later spurn a chance to double the lead when he planted a header straight into the goalkeeper's arms but, in the final reckoning, it didn't matter. As has become customary, David Moyes's side defended deeply and resolutely to shut down United's probing passing game and effected a defensive rearguard action that rendered second-half substitute Robin van Persie's debut almost meaningless.
Despite both teams finding their legs as they came off their respective pre-season programmes, the first half was at times played at a frenetic pace, with chances arriving coming for both sides. As expected, United enjoyed the lion's share of possession but it was a famiilar Everton line-up — Moyes's starting XI featured just one change from the 4-4 draw at Old Trafford, Phil Neville lining up in central midfield with John Heitinga on the bench — that carved out the best chances in the first 45 minutes.
After Fellaini had been denied by the woodwork, De Gea was forced into four crucial interventions to keep the scores level at the break. First he had to palm Steven Pienaar's looping header over the bar, then he pushed the South African's low, placed effort away from goal before he made two one-handed stops to deny Leon Osman from point-blank range and Leighton Baines from a deflected direct free kick.
At the other end, Nani curled a speculative effort narrowly wide and Phil Jagielka was on hand to twice deny Danny Welbeck but it was Wayne Rooney who could have had United in front first through any of three chances. Tim Howard's fingertips helped his free kick past the post, the American was fortunate to see a later header come straight to him, before the ex-Blue planted a free header well wide in first-half stoppage time, much to the home fans' relief.
Everton's sense of the big night was not lessened by the half-time break and, roared on by a deafening crowd, they began the second half with the same purpose with which they'd begun the second. Indeed, less than four minutes after the restart, Osman had thundered a shot off the underside of the crossbar with De Gea beaten all ends up but the ball dropped a yard in front of the goalline and was hacked away.
Eight minutes later, though, the goal that would garner the Blues' first opening day points in four seasons arrived after Pienaar's attempted cross had been deflected behind and Darron Gibson picked Fellaini out with a perfect corner from the right-hand side. Fellaini easily out-matched Carrick and buried the header, Ferguson-style, into the corner of the goal.
United responded just as expected and came within inches of leveling matters within 10 minutes of Fellaini's goal. Antonio Valencia's cross from the right eluded both Tony Hibbert and Paul Scholes, dropping to the feet of United debutant Kagawa, who smartly laid it off to Tom Cleverly six-yards out. His shot appeared bound for the back of the net but Jagielka dangled back a leg and stopped it on the line before it was belted away to safety.
Despite all their possession, huffing and puffing, that would prove to be United's best chance of the game as Everton dug in their defences and dared the deposed Champions to break them down. Van Persie made his entrance with 22 minutes to go and he served up an excellent chance for Kagawa in the 79th minute but the onrushing Howard did enough to put the enterprising Japanese midfielder off at the crucial moment and his attempt to dink the ball over the 'keeper dropped safely over the bar instead.
Truth be told, the last 10 minutes were nailbiters, mostly because the tremendous shift Moyes's players had put in had wiped them out by the game's closing stages. Osman was replaced by Seamus Coleman in the 80th minute but Pienaar, Fellaini and Gibson, were all exhibiting heavy limbs by this point and Nikica Jelavic, who didn't really get a sniff of goal all evening, was forced off with cramp with a few minutes to go.
That allowed Steven Naismith to make his first appearance and Heitinga made a cameo appearance in injury time to allow Fellaini to milk the applause for a man-of-the-match display from a delirious Goodison faithful. All the while, the entrenched Blue wall stood firm and, save for a late effort by Anderson, United had shown themselves unable to find a away around it, over it, or through it.
The performance was typical of the Blues in these types of games on home soil — tenacious, determined and stubborn in midfield and defence — but there was much to admire going forward as well, albeit more so in the first half. Gibson was assured and unruffled alongside the pugnacious Neville and though Pienaar faded as an attacking influence, his work rate in tracking back never faltered as the home side stood firm.
Indeed, there wasn't a poor performance in a Blue jersey — only Tim Howard didn't excel because he didn't really need to! Indeed, after Jelavic hobbled off the field with cramp, Sylvain Distin had to be carried off having expended every last drop of energy to preserve the lead.
So, three glorious points to start the campaign and a statement from Moyes's boys that Everton could be serious contenders in the top six this season if they can use this victory as a springboard to making a strong start to the first third of the campaign.
Player Ratings: Howard 6, Hibbert 8, Jagielka 9, Distin 8, Baines 8, Osman 8 (Coleman 7), Gibson 8, Neville 7, Pienaar 7, Fellaini 9* (Heitinga -), Jelavic 7 (Naismith -)
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|
|Premier League Scores|
|Arsenal||0 - 0||Sunderland|
|Fulham||5 - 0||Norwich|
|Newcastle||2 - 1||Tottenham|
|QPR||0 - 5||Swansea|
|Reading||1 - 1||Stoke|
|West Brom||3 - 0||Liverpool|
|West Ham||1 - 0||Aston Villa|
|Man City||3 - 2||Southampton|
|Newcastle||2 - 1||Tottenham|
|Everton||1 - 0||Man United|
|3||West Bromwich Albion||3|
|7||West Ham United||3|
|19||Queens Park Rangers||0|