Everton again came from behind to win a valuable point as their injury ravaged squad, excellently prepared by manager Benitez fought every inch of the way and completely and thoroughly deserve the plaudits for their efforts.
The short bus ride down the East Lancashire Road, well maybe the M62, delivered the Blues to Old Trafford for a lunchtime, fourth versus fifth clash with the winner to go top of the table even if only for a couple of hours.
United got back winning ways after three straight defeats with a late, late, injury/Fergie time winner over Villareal on Wednesday from Cristiano Ronaldo but from media reports, it was a largely unconvincing performance against the side who denied them last season’s Europa League crown.
United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had a host of star names in his squad to choose from to face the Blues after confirming: “Luke [Shaw] feels better in himself. He’s been ill but he has the shoulder injury, so we have to make a decision on him. Marcus [Rashford] trained fully again with contact this morning. There were tackles flying in on him but he seems okay, which was nice to see. Apart from that, Harry [Maguire] and Amad (Diallo) are still out. So we didn’t lose anyone on Wednesday night.”
He also spent time in his pre-match press briefing complaining about fixture scheduling that meant his team had to play Saturday (at home) after playing Wednesday (at home) in the Champions League while other clubs (he mentioned City and the RS) got an extra days rest. OGS has a conveniently short and selective memory – in October of the 2013/14 season, Everton had to return from a long, Thursday night Europa League game away to Krasnodar to play the early kick-off Sunday game away at OT – how can he whinge about scheduling?
The Norwegian duly named his starting line-up: De Gea, Wan-Bissaka, Varane, Lindelof, Shaw, McTominay, Fred, Greenwood, Fernandes (c), Martial and Cavani.
Everton boss Rafael Benitez had far more injury woes than his Old Trafford counterpart to contend with as he advised his Friday media gathering that, “Seamus Coleman and Dominic [Calvert-Lewin] are not ready yet. They are training, they are starting to train on the pitch, little by little, but they are not ready for this game. With Richarlison and Andre (Gomes), it is exactly the same situation. They continue working and they are getting better, but they are not ready for this game. Alex (Iwobi) has a little problem and I don’t know if he will be available for tomorrow. JP [Gbamin] is training again. He is fully fit. It is good news to have him back because we need bodies.”
Asked if he was preparing a gameplan specifically to deal with the threat of Ronaldo who he managed during his time at Real Madrid, the manager noted, “I think Cristiano is a great professional, with his age he’s doing really well but, you can’t just focus on one player, even if he is as good as Cristiano. We need a gameplan to try to stop them and then be positive in our approach to try to score goals. It’s not just Cristiano, the others can score goals. It [the plan] is to concentrate from the first minute until the last, to present a team that can compete and get the three points. We will try to be strong in defence and try to score goals.”
The boss also took time out to highlight the impact summer signings Andros Townsend and Demarai Gray have made and he sees improvements in other players already too. “Good professionals improve,” he said, adding, “You try to analyse little details that can make them a little bit better and they will improve. Andros is an intelligent and hard-working player and trying to improve his game every day. He is a great example for players like Anthony Gordon, Demarai Gray and Alex Iwobi. They play in the same position and we work together in terms of movement and the understanding of the game, both from offensive and defensive points of view. I always say to players that you remember the good teachers in your school who pushed you, not the nice ones who allowed you to do whatever you wanted. As a manager, you need to try to improve your staff, yourself, your team, your players, as much as you can.”
Limited by the length of the injury list, Benitez entrusted his gameplan to deal with United to the following starting eleven: Pickford, Godfrey, Mina, Keane, Digne (c), Doucoure, Allan, Townsend, Gray, Gordon and Rondon.
For this match-up between two of the most fabled of English clubs, our referee was Michael Oliver.
Quite rightly, a minutes applause rang out prior to kick-off in memory of the late, great World Cup winner Roger Hunt.
Wan-Bissaka with an early push forward was denied by Gordon and Digne, ahead of Shaw and Fernandes trying to link up, Pickford easily claiming the ball as it was lofted into the Everton penalty area. United moved the ball around well to find Wan-Bissaka and he did Digne before crossing for Martial who put his header wide of the back post as the home side enjoyed the early momentum.
Godfrey with a good tackle on Shaw conceded the first corner that was flicked on and cleared by Doucoure, for Fernandes to find Greenwood who put his cross through the six yard area with nobody there to finish. Everton took their time to get forward with Digne finding Rondon, only to he called back for offside after Varane deflected his shot behind.
Wan-Bissaka through the back of Rondon saw the Blues with a free kick wide left that Digne swung in, Martial hooking it clear for a throw in before Godfrey got to the cross. Townsend to Gray in the box and his cross towards Gordon was cleared and Everton retaining possession to win another free kick as Shaw pushed Townsend in the back. Townsend with the cross and the glancing header from Michael Keane going just wide of the far post.
Keane doing his defensive work turned a low cross from McTominay away for a corner that saw Greenwood cross and Mina head clear to launch a Blues counter attack. Everton had weathered the early United attacks and were beginning to grow into the game, but needed to remain alert as a cross from the left by Martial found Cavani, Pickford with an excellent save to deny the Uruguayan.
Fred with a clear kick on Gray escaped without a booking, the free kick not producing anything for the Blues as we reached the midway point of the first half. Digne with a good block conceded another corner that Keane headed clear, Everton defending the set pieces well. Good work by Doucoure saw him combine through midfield with Townsend and carry on to take the return ball and cross for Rondon who saw his shot on the turn blocked and cleared by Lindelof but, an encouraging move from the Blues.
McTominay in heavily on both Gordon and Digne led to tempers fraying as Everton reacted to McTominay suggesting Digne was feigning injury, referee Oliver determining that a few well chosen words of rebuke was preferable to brandishing any cards.
Everton with a glorious opportunity as Gordon got away from Wan-Bissaka to collect a ball from Digne and cross low into the area where Shaw did enough to prevent Townsend from getting on the end of it. Gray bursting forward on a Digne interception of a loose ball from Fernandes decided to shoot early and he drew a good save from De Gea to keep the scoreboard idle. Greenwood was booked for a foul on Anthony Gordon who was beginning to cause United problems down their right side.
Another good break by the Blues saw Rondon, Townsend and Doucoure combine down the Blues right, Townsend crossing for Doucoure, his shot well blocked by Wan-Bissaka. The game was beginning to get a bit more physical, McTominay pushing and shoving with Rondon and then tough challenges by Cavani and Fernandes on Gray giving the Blues a free kick that saw De Gea gather a Mina header easily.
Into the final five minutes of the half and Old Trafford had a very subdued atmosphere as Godfrey cleared from Martial and Gordon and Digne dealt comfortably with a cross from Shaw. Disappointingly all the Blues good work of the first 43 minutes was undone as Greenwood found Fernandes and his quick ball onto Martial saw the Frenchman – in too much space – put the home side ahead with a firm finish that took a deflection off Ben Godfrey to give Jordan Pickford no chance.
Into two minutes of added-on time and Pickford easily saved another effort from Martial. Everton would be disappointed to be behind at the break, the scoreline not entirely representative of their contribution.
Half Time: 1-0
No changes by either manager for the second half as Everton looked to attack the old Scoreboard End of Old Trafford where the visitors section was packed with the usual sold out following of Blues fans. An early corner to United conceded by Godfrey saw the deep cross from Shaw find Greenwood, Pickford with a comfortable save from the shot.
One touch passing between Fernandes, Cavani and Martial was broken up by Doucoure and Godfrey completing the clearance in what was a fairly quiet opening to the second half. Townsend with a fine through ball for Rondon that was cleared led to a collision between Godfrey and Shaw that saw the United man stay down. United prepared two early changes with Sancho and Ronaldo stripping off to become 56th minute substitutions for Martial and Cavani respectively. Sancho tried to get involved quickly, a fine sliding tackle by Keane denying the chance.
A good burst down the left saw Gray onto a ball from Gordon to gain the United area but slightly lose his balance in trying to get a shot away. Greenwood was well blocked by Keane and Fernandes fouled Allan to prevent the Blues getting forward. United through Ronaldo had the Blues back-peddling but, they didn’t panic and the final ball from Fernandes was poor. Doucoure pushing forward tried to find Gray in the area, Lindelof again with the clearance.
The slightest of touches by Rondon on Ronaldo gave the home side a free kick from which they won another corner that the Blues defended well to launch a devastating counter attack. Gray muscled Wan-Bissaka off the ball to get forward and feed Doucoure who realyed the ball onto Andros Townsend and he smote a fine low shot past the flailing De Gea on 65 minutes.
Gordon doing his defensive bit denied Wan-Bissake a cross at the expense of a corner that saw Townsend concede another that was flicked on by Varane for Godfrey to clear, Greenwood then slipping and the myopic home crowd screaming like stuck pigs for a penalty. Gordon was having a very good game, getting forward and then doubling back to do more good work in midfield to slow United down.
On 70 minutes, Pogba replaced Fred as Everton also looked to make a change with Tom Davies warming up, to replace Anthony Gordon on 72 minutes, Flash getting a great round of applause from the travelling Blues support.
Michael Keane made a superb block to halt McTominay in his tracks getting on the end of a ball from Pogba, before Davies sent Gray away down the left, Lindelof seeing the ball out for a goal kick. Ronaldo with his first effort shot through the six yard area as both sides looked to try and force a winner in the final quarter of an hour.
Abdoulaye Doucoure was very harshly booked for a foul on Fernandes ahead of Godfrey and Townsend combining to dispossess and clear from Ronaldo. Michael Keane was having his best game of the season at the heart of the Blues defence as United kept trying to find a way through without success and the travelling support again raised its voices to encourage their favourites on for the final ten minutes.
Sancho got away from Godfrey rather too easily to find Pogba, his curling shot going too high and wide of the target but, a warning Everton needed to heed down their right side. Pogba found in the box was well marshalled by Allan at the expense of a corner that he then failed to get a decent header on, Pickford not troubled.
Allan appeared to be struggling, indicating a possible tight hamstring but, manfully wanted to stay involved. Tom Davies with an interception to find Gray and onto Doucoure to win a corner on the Blues left, that was partly cleared only for Godfrey to pick out Tom Davies and he passed up the shooting opportunity to unselfishly cross for Mina to finish from a marginally offside position – Bugger !!
With the BT Sport commentary clearly wanting ‘Ronaldo time’, shame on you Martin Keown, the former Blues defender then just about balanced things up by naming Demarai Gray as his Man of the Match. Pogba to Ronaldo to Sancho saw the youngster scuff his shot and incredibly, four added minutes were announced.
Lewis Dobbin made a cameo appearance replacing Demarai Gray and eat some time off the clock, a Fernandes free kick was defended and Pickford was spoken to about time wasting.
An excellent point for the Blues and thoroughly deserved.