Rafa Benitez says Everton are creating the springboard for a productive campaign after climbing into the Premier League’s top four with a Saturday lunchtime draw at Manchester United.
Andros Townsend arrowed home to cap a thrilling 65th-minute counter-attack and draw Everton level at Old Trafford following Anthony Martial’s first-half goal for the home team.
Manager Benitez insisted the result was the least Everton deserved – Yerry Mina had a late ‘goal’ chalked off by the VAR for offside – and testament to the collective spirit of his team.
Everton have a fortnight’s wait before playing again, against West Ham United at Goodison Park, where Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison could be fit to return.
“I am really pleased to come here and perform the way we did – we were nearly there, very close [to winning],” said Benitez.
“The chances we had and the way we defended, against a very good team, you have to be really proud of the players.
“It is a good draw, mentally like a victory, with the players who aren’t playing.
“If we have everybody available and continue with the same team spirit, we can win more games.
“Hopefully, we can bring back some players but be sure that we keep the same mentality, the same commitment, the same intensity.
“Then, after, we go little by little, progressing in the season, and we'll see where we are.”
Everton fell behind to Martial’s rising strike against the run of play three minutes before half-time.
But 20 minutes after the restart, Benitez’s team summoned a glorious riposte.
The exceptional Demarai Gray sped upfield resisting all-comers, Manchester United midfielder Fred notably bouncing off the Everton player, before feeding Abdoulaye Doucoure.
Frenchman Doucoure eluded Victor Lindelof and Luke Shaw with a clever feint to slide in Townsend for an unerring finish across De Gea.
“We were doing well and it was a pity we conceded in the last three minutes on the first half because the team was working hard,” said Benitez.
“I was a little bit worried because United have players on the bench who can make the difference.
“We needed to keep the intensity and that was not easy against a very good team.
“In the second half, the team reacted well and we had chances to win the game.
“Andros is doing well, his commitment and quality is there.
“But this was a team effort, it is not one player doing well. Andros was fantastic but the rest of the team worked so hard to get a point that could have been even better.”
Everton thought they’d come from behind to win for a third time this season when Mina toed in Tom Davies’ cross after United failed to clear a corner.
Benitez admitted he’d kept a lid on his celebrations in case the VAR intervened and refused to let the disappointment dampen his verdict, instead reserving praise for his side’s sustained intent after Townsend's equaliser.
Gray, Townsend and Anthony Gordon, supporting lone striker Salomon Rondon, were all integral to their side’s gameplan.
Without the ball – and United had 72-per-cent possession – the trio, in addition to Rondon, worked their socks off to disrupt the hosts’ rhythm.
When Everton had possession, the front quartet came alive in an attacking sense to regularly put Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team under pressure.
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“I was really pleased with the effort and commitment and way we did things on the pitch,” said Benitez.
“We conceded but had to manage that situation.
“The four offensive players – Gordon, it was not easy for him to play in this stadium, Gray, Rondon and Townsend, were working really hard.
“It’s not just that they have to create something in attack, they have to help the team in defence and with the full-backs going forward.
“It was not easy for Demarai in the last game [victory over Norwich seven days ago] because he was tired but he did well.
“To play the level he played in this game was impressive… the players up front were fighting.
“Rondon was holding the ball, with the midfielders supporting, and the defenders dealt with Manchester United’s very good players.”
Everton went to Manchester missing a clutch of significant performers.
In addition to the absences of Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison, there was no Seamus Coleman, Alex Iwobi or Andre Gomes.
“I think it was great because we have some players who are not playing with us in these games and then that means the other players have played too many minutes,” added Benitez.
“You could see some of them were a little bit tired at the end. But I think, overall, it was a great performance.
"The team was doing really well in defence, doing well on the counter-attack, and we had the chances we wanted. It was a pity because we can be happy with one point but it could be even better.”