Man Utd look in command of Premiership
There is a legitimate debate to be had about the quality of English football this season, and a clearer picture will emerge in forthcoming Champions League tests for Manchester United and Arsenal, but it would be wrong, let alone churlish, to begrudge the United fans their huge smiles as they left Old Trafford last night. United are 12 points clear of City with 12 games to play and a 20th title surely awaits, deservedly so.
Some of the bookies think so. One has already paid out on United bets.
Another did so last season, precipitously and expensively when City reeled United back in but it is hard to envisage lightning striking twice. This looks the defining weekend. City’s defeat at Southampton looks so costly.
Roberto Mancini’s side are missing Vincent Kompany’s steadying presence, the failure to bring in true top-class players in the summer has proved a false economy while their attack has lost some of its cutting edge. Sergio Aguero is not quite the electric presence of before. City fans could be forgiven a rueful sigh at more news of Mario Balotelli scoring again for AC Milan, although the decision to sell him was understandable.
As City have regressed, United have progressed. Ferguson addressed the two issues that bedevilled his team last term: goals and concentration. Robin van Persie arrived to sharpen the attack and there is a superior resilience to close out games. Ferguson promised there would be no repeat of last April’s surrender of late points to Everton here and experienced players like Nemanja Vidic did not let him down. Nor did youngsters like Rafael, who has improved markedly, developing his defensive strengths while maintaining his attacking brio. Rafael’s next challenge comes in the Bernabeu on Wednesday: Cristiano Ronaldo.
United were not at their flamboyant best but did not need to be.
Everton were disappointing, seemingly tired and their squad still too thin. They enjoyed spells of promise, particularly when the ball was with Leon Osman, but they badly missed Sylvain Distin, who fell ill during the kick-in. His replacement, Johnny Heitinga, proved an inadequate understudy as David Moyes’ record continued of no league wins at United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool in almost 11 years at Everton.
United were hungrier. Wayne Rooney’s work-rate was exceptional, the striker linking midfield and Van Persie constantly and tracking back in the dying moments to close down Phil Neville and then head a Leighton Baines cross clear. At 39, Ryan Giggs continues to treat Father Time like an opposing full-back, just another challenge to beat. Giggs worked as hard in the 90th minute against Everton here as he did during his League debut against Everton here in 1991. “He’s an amazing human being,” said Ferguson of a player who has now scored in every Premier League season. “He is unbelievable with his energy and enthusiasm. His game is consistently incredible.” It is this attitude, this dedication, that underpins United’s march towards the title.
United’s next five Premier League games should garner them close to maximum points, taking in QPR (away), Norwich (home), West Ham (away, depending on FA Cup), Reading (home) and Sunderland (away). The following five matches are less straightforward, comprising City (home), Stoke (away), Aston Villa (home), Arsenal (away) and Chelsea (home). United finish against Swansea City (home) and West Brom (away). It should be over long before then. This weekend was probably the defining one.
This game was preceded by some poignant moments. Everton officials left flowers at the Munich memorial, commemorating the 55th anniversary of the air disaster. United fans on the Stretford End passed a huge surfer flag over their heads depicting the Busby Babes with the words “we’ll never die”.
Wearing black armbands, United’s players marched out and swiftly took control. Phil Jones quickly set about man-marking Marouane Fellaini, a tactic that United could attempt on Ronaldo. Jones stifled the Belgian for 55 minutes until hobbling away. Ferguson indicated that the injury was not too serious but there is always a risk for those considering special attention for Ronaldo; Real Madrid fans will scream for any challenge on their No 7 and a booking for the shadow ends the duel.
Real’s coach, Jose Mourinho, was present here, making occasional notes on his team-sheet. He watched Rooney dropping deep, collecting possession from Rafael, and slipping a ball down the inside-right channel. Van Persie glided past Heitinga, rounded Tim Howard, but fired right-footed against the post. Heitinga was soon caught out again. Antonio Valencia outjumped Baines, heading the ball inside to Van Persie. Turning Heitinga far too easily, Van Persie touched the ball to Giggs, whose right-footed shot beat Howard via a post.
Everton responded briefly. Osman had a dipping volley athletically saved by David De Gea. Vidic threw himself to the way of a shot from Kevin Mirallas, who then lifted in a free-kick that De Gea cleared with a powerful punch. De Gea’s next punch was less assertive, giving his defence momentary jitters. Oft-criticised, the young Spaniard was good overall here.
United simply hit back with a second just before the break. Rafael played a 1-2 with Rooney before flicking the ball with the outside of his right foot for Van Persie to run through Everton’s very high line.
Neville, making his 300th appearance in all competitions for Everton, played Van Persie on, putting his hand up in a vainful appeal for offside but resembling more an anxious schoolboy needing to be excused. Van Persie raced on, rounding Howard and this time finding the net.
Moyes sent on Nikica Jelavic but the striker seems shorn of confidence. United went closer to scoring. Jonny Evans was twice denied by Howard, who then tipped Tom Cleverley’s effort over. De Gea pushed away a Jelavic shot but Everton lacked the competitive zeal flowing through United.