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Last season's scars still show on Sir Alex Ferguson. "No, no, no" he said when asked whether a 12-point advantage with 12 games to go has placed the Premier League title beyond Manchester City. The reply was surely one of professional courtesy. Privately he must know it. Old Trafford certainly did after a comfortable defeat of Everton. Manchester United are too ruthless, too consistent, to offer their neighbours hope now.
This fixture cost United a 20th league title last season, according to a manager who has vowed that late collapses – that saw Everton recover from 4-2 down with minutes remaining at Old Trafford and an eight-point lead dissolve over six matches – will not be repeated. United are following Ferguson's instruction and number 20 beckons after the return of David Moyes' team proved another significant step in the title race. Everton were dispatched in efficient fashion by a side blinkered from an impending date with Real Madrid in the Champions League.
Goals from Ryan Giggs, scoring for the 23rd season in a row for United, and Robin Van Persie, who offers another reason for Roberto Mancini to rue his rival's relentlessness, sealed victory before half-time as the league leaders capitalised on City's defeat at Southampton. The observing José Mourinho may have studied better Ferguson teams, more formidable European rivals, but United have a self-belief and potency that threatens his ambition of becoming the first man to win the European Cup with three different clubs.
City's defeat on the south coast was not the cue for United to ease up against Everton with Madrid in mind. In fact it was quite the opposite. Everything about the league leaders' approach was about getting the job done. From Ferguson's team selection – the opposite of the changed selection he proposed on Friday – to the home side's frenetic start, the determination to land a decisive victory was evident. Ferguson was not about to let another slip by the reigning champions to escape unpunished.
United dominated from the opening whistle, with Phil Jones' limpet-like marking of Marouane Fellaini underlining their refusal to allow Everton any time to settle on the ball. Fellaini had been instrumental in Everton's 4-4 draw here last season and victory at Goodison Park at the start of this campaign but he and his team-mates were hassled each time they touched the ball. "They man-marked Fellaini with Phil Jones and set out their stall to stop us doing what we wanted to do," said Moyes. "They played as if they meant it. They were not thinking about a midweek game, that's for sure. They were really competitive and we didn't compete enough."
The visitors were behind before they were able to find any rhythm. Van Persie should have opened the scoring with 10 minutes gone when Wayne Rooney was left unchallenged to pierce the Everton defence. Phil Neville's attempted offside trap malfunctioned, allowing Van Persie to round Tim Howard and bring Old Trafford to its feet in anticipation of his 23rd goal of the season. Astonishingly the Dutch striker struck the outside of the post with his weaker right foot. Neville would later repeat his error. Van Persie would not.
Everton's preparations had been disrupted by the late withdrawal of Sylvain Distin through illness. That meant an unexpected reprieve for John Heitinga, who was at fault for all three Aston Villa goals at Goodison last Saturday – his worst display in an Everton shirt, he later confessed – and West Bromwich Albion's consolation before that. The recall brought another costly mistake. Antonio Valencia outjumped Leighton Baines to Rafael's long ball and Heitinga completely misread the bounce to leave Van Persie goalside. The United forward had time to shoot but unselfishly squared to Giggs, who rolled the ball in off Howard's post with his right foot.
Giggs made his United debut against Everton on 2 March 1991, a moment captured in the match-day programme with a photograph of the precocious winger standing in front of Dave Watson. Here, almost 22 years later, the remarkable 39-year-old picked a fitting opponent against whom to score his first goal of the season and thus extend his scoring record for United.
Everton belatedly showed some belief and composure on the ball following Giggs's goal. Leon Osman forced David de Gea into his first save of the game with a volley from 20 yards and Nemanja Vidic made an important block from Kevin Mirallas as the visitors' Belgian contingent began to impose themselves. They rarely threatened an equaliser, however, and United added the cushion of a second goal on the stroke of half-time when Rafael sent Van Persie clear of Neville's offside appeal. Again the striker went round the Everton goalkeeper's left and this time, despite Heitinga's best efforts on the line, he finished convincingly.
Howard saved superbly from Jonny Evans in the second half and United, despite a late scare when Nikica Jelavic replaced the anonymous Victor Anichebe in Everton's attack, held their lead comfortably. As City fumble their hold on the Premier League trophy, United's grip tightens. It was a fitting way for United's players to mark the recent 55th anniversary of the Munich disaster. Before kick-off supporters had played their part on the Stretford End, raising a banner that showed the Busby Babes lining up before their final game in Belgrade and above the words "We'll Never Die".
Manchester United started their Premier League campaign with a 1-0 defeat at Everton, where Marouane Fellaini was allowed to roam across the pitch, exploiting the absences in United's backline, and thriving in aerial duels against the makeshift centre-back Michael Carrick.
Sir Alex Ferguson was able to select a more orthodox defensive quartet here but still had a plan for stopping Fellaini. It involved Phil Jones, who has become Ferguson's go-to man for specific defensive tasks against particularly dangerous opponents. Last month, for example, he was deployed in a right-sided defensive midfield position to help Rafael da Silva cope with Gareth Bale, and it was no surprise Ferguson summoned Jones to take care of Fellaini.
His versatility and determination has made him a trusty foot solider – and just as the likes of John O'Shea, Darren Fletcher and Park Ji-sung have played valuable roles for Ferguson by flitting between functional roles and performing astutely in big games, Jones might play a significant part in United's trip to Madrid on Wednesday evening. Jones was man-of-the-match on his Premier League debut when marking Didier Drogba three years ago, and he is one of few Premier League players who can boast the bravery and aerial prowess – as well as the mobility to play in midfield – to stop Fellaini.
The extreme nature of his man-marking job is rarely seen in a modern Premier League game – Jones followed Fellaini wherever he went, leaving United's centre-backs to focus on Victor Anichebe. In itself, the ploy worked superbly. Whereas Fellaini had been the dominant player at Goodison, he was on the periphery of this match, often marked so tightly that Everton didn't even attempt to find him.
Whereas defensive players usually concentrate on remaining goalside of opponents, in certain situations – when Fellaini was high up the pitch – Jones was content to get in front of his opponent. A key feature of Fellaini's game is his ability to bring the ball down on his chest, shield the ball from his opponents, and play in onrushing midfielders. Jones's brave positioning prevented this and Fellaini's chest control was barely noticeable.
However, allowing one of their central midfielders to be dragged out of position had problematic knock-on consequences for United's overall shape; Jones's inevitable tendency to leave his central midfield zone unattended left Tom Cleverley isolated against Darron Gibson and Leon Osman.
Everton found too much space in the centre of the pitch, and dominated possession in the first half. With Antonio Valencia tracking Leighton Baines determinedly on the right, Ryan Giggs was forced to move infield from his left-sided position, which left Phil Neville free to attack from right-back. This was hardly a disastrous situation for United: allowing Neville time on the ball was obviously preferable to allowing Fellaini to dominate, and coercing Everton into attacking down the right, rather than their favoured left, was another way of harming the away side's attacking capabilities.
Nevertheless, Ferguson was sufficiently concerned by United's weakness on that side that he moved Wayne Rooney across to become a left-sided midfielder after half an hour, meaning a switch to a 4-1-4-1 system, from their initial 4-4-2. Jones was forced off in the second half because of a slight injury, which again pitted Fellaini against Carrick. But the Belgian's influence on the game was no more obvious, and Moyes eventually brought him deeper into midfield, attempting to get him more involved. However, United rarely appeared troubled – they cleverly cooled the tempo and killed the game with unambitious ball retention, allowing them to conserve energy ahead of the midweek meeting with Cristiano Ronaldo and co.
Everton's Kevin Mirallas doesn't know what helped his hamstring heal, but with a doctor who has used calves' blood and cockerel's crest in the past, perhaps that's for the best.
Bayern Munich doctor Hans Muller-Wohlfhart is a controversial figure whose unorthodox methods have helped footballers and other sporting stars including Usain Bolt.
Everton star Mirallas turned to the man they call 'Healing Hans' after talking to his best friend and Belgium colleague Daniel van Buyten, who plays for Bayern.
'I just had this problem and as an option I decided to turn to him to try to cure it,' he said.
'We tried a certain method here at the club with the doctors and physios and had a setback. 'So I chatted to Daniel and he said, "Why don't you come and try here? He's very good.'
Mirallas, a £5.3million signing from Olympiakos, asked Everton for permission and travelled to Munich to meet Muller-Wohlfhart.
'From the very first injection I started to feel a slight improvement,' Mirillas said.
'It was incredible. I don't know what he used but it's worked so far.
'Let's hope the injuries are behind me and I can get a run of games together.'
David Moyes is a non-runner in the search for Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor – because he has no top-level Champions League experience, writes the Sunday People.
The Everton boss arrives at Old Trafford today hoping to deliver another blow to Manchester United’s title hopes after masterminding the 4-4 draw that help cost Fergie his 13th league crown.
But despite following that huge result with a 1-0 win over the Reds in the opening match of this season, senior Old Trafford figures planning for the departure of Ferguson are set to overlook Moyes.
Sunday People Sport can reveal that highly-placed United sources believe it would be too much of a gamble to hand over the reins to a manager who has never played a single game in the Champions League group stages.
And although Moyes, 49, has been touted as Ferguson’s successor ahead of controversial Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho, it is clear that United have major misgivings about the suitability of the Goodison boss who is currently on Chelsea’s radar.
Ferguson’s future seems assured for another season with kingmaker and chief executive David Gill so far having had no discussion with his 71-year-old manager about stepping down this summer.
And we understand that Gill has no shortlist in place for when Ferguson says he is going.
United figurehead Sir Bobby Charlton, meanwhile, has revealed Ferguson WON’T step down this summer if the Reds win the league title back from Man City.
Charlton said: ”Alex won’t walk away if he wins the title this season, I don’t think he has any plans to do that at all.”
Old Trafford insiders insist major European experience is the top of three key criteria for Ferguson’s replacement.
The second is a commitment to United’s proud tradition of producing and nurturing young talent – a stance that would appear to rule out Mourinho.
And the third strand is a willingness to embrace United’s global commercialism.
United’s hierarchy want the new boss to adopt Fergie’s businesslike approach to growing the United brand.
Meanwhile, Manchester City ARE interested in taking Moyes as their next manager.
LEON OSMAN admitted losing Sylvain Distin to illness before kick-off dealt a blow to Everton FC’s hopes of ending their Old Trafford drought.
The Blues were consigned to only their fourth defeat of the season at Old Trafford, as Manchester United took advantage of their defensive vulnerability to score twice in the first half.
Preparations were harmed when Distin had to be withdrawn during the warm-up after being taken ill, and Osman believes the unexpected switch was a significant setback as the Blues looked to end a 20-year winless streak on United’s home turf.
He said: “It’s always disappointing to lose a player in the warm-up. It was one of those things – he was too ill to play so we couldn’t send him out there.
“It probably affected us a little bit but that’s not the type of thing we can moan about, we’re paid to go out there and play football and we tried to do that.
“United are more than likely going to win the title. They’re 12 points ahead of their nearest rivals and we came to their place and outplayed them for large periods of the game so we’ll certainly look to take the positives.
"Their class showed through and their top players took their chances. It’s disappointing but we’ve got to take the positives into next week’s game.”
Osman insisted Everton cannot expect their annual surge in form as the season nears its conclusion to happen automatically.
“We can’t guarantee that we’re going to start performing in the second half of the season,” said the England midfielder. “It’s not a given, we’ve got to make it happen on the pitch. The scoreline and result went against us but for large parts we were playing really well.
“We had a couple of chances but got hit on the break at Old Trafford which shows where the game was at the time.”
Osman believes that the strong starting line-up fielded by Alex Ferguson was testament to Everton’s recent competitiveness with the Red Devils.
He added: “I don’t think they’ve ever done that against us. In the past when you look back and they’ve had big games on the horizon, Sir Alex Ferguson has always put strong teams out which I suppose is testament to us.
“We’ve got to go to Oldham and do a job now. We can’t start thinking about anything beyond that.”