Lewis Rutledge picks out the main talking points from Manchester United's 2-0 victory over Everton at Old Trafford, and says there were no signs of the Red Devils repeating their mistakes from last season.
Last Updated: 10/02/13 7:16pm
Phil Jones' hard work typified a professional performance from Manchester United
Manchester United took advantage of Manchester City's slip-up at Southampton by seeing off Everton 2-0 at Old Trafford to extend their lead in the Premier League title race to 12 points.
Everton are one of the most dogged sides in the league and had only been beaten three times this season prior to kick-off, but United dealt with them comfortably after doing the damage in the first half.
Ryan Giggs continued to defy the ageing process as he scored in the league for a remarkable 23rd successive year, before Robin van Persie netted a crucial second on the stroke of half-time.
Having promised to pick two different sides for this match and the European encounter against Real Madrid in midweek, there had been a thought that Sir Alex Ferguson may rest a number of his key players. However, he went with an extremely strong side as Van Persie started alongside Wayne Rooney up front, with Nemanja Vidic, Tom Cleverley and David de Gea also included and Phil Jones back from illness in midfield.
Everton suffered a blow in the minutes before kick-off when Sylvain Distin had to withdraw from the starting XI after feeling unwell and John Heitinga came back in. David Moyes again preferred Victor Anichebe to Nikica Jelavic in attack, while Red Devils old boys Phil Neville and Darron Gibson, as well as goalkeeper Tim Howard, were all named in the side.
United started out with an attacking line-up and 4-4-2 formation, but Ferguson also devised a plan to combat the threat of Marouane Fellaini, who had been so effective in the reverse fixture at Goodison Park. Jones stuck closely to the powerful Belgian throughout his stay on the pitch and Antonio Valencia and Giggs also worked hard defensively to limit the threat of Everton's attacking players.
Steven Pienaar and Kevin Mirallas switched sides to try and unsettle United's plans as Everton went in with more of a 4-4-1-1 system, Fellaini given the freedom to roam and provide attacking support for Anichebe. The Toffees are always well organised at the back but they made a mistake in playing with a high line, as Van Persie beat the offside trap to score the crucial second goal of the game.
Jones did an excellent job in keeping Fellaini quiet but had to be replaced by Michael Carrick in the second half after picking up a slight niggle. The change did not allow the Toffeees to get back into the game as Carrick kept his discipline and added a new dimension with some typically classy passing. Chris Smalling was brought on for Jonny Evans in the closing stages and immediately had a moment of hesitancy which let Jelavic have a shot.
Jelavic had been brought on in place of Anichebe just before the hour mark and looked like he had a point to prove as he put in a hard-working shift, but in truth it was a frustrating afternoon for both strikers against an organised United defence. Steven Naismith also came on for Kevin Mirallas to provide Everton with something different in attack but made little impression.
They say the mark of a good referee is when they do not really get noticed, and this was one of those games for Mark Halsey as the officials stayed out of the spotlight. There were no big decisions for him to make and no controversy in a match played in the right spirit, with just a couple of yellow cards for Mirallas and Fellaini.
It was a very efficient team performance but the player who set United on their way to success was Giggs, who has now scored in every season of the Premier League. It was a fine goal from the Welshman as he rolled a cool finish in off the post from Robin van Persie's lay-off in the 13th minute. The 39-year-old was as composed as ever in possession and is still incredibly mobile as he got up and down the left flank in support of both his attackers and defenders, although after completing 90 minutes it is unlikely he will be handed a start against Real Madrid on Wednesday.
Leighton Baines has been in superb form for Everton all season and that is probably why Ferguson decided to go with the defensive insurance of Antonio Valencia in front of Rafael. The left-back's threat was nullified to some extent but he still managed to get forward well at times and was as solid as always at the back. Goalkeeper Howard also deserves praise for a couple of superb stops, including one instinctive double save from Jonny Evans and an athletic dive to deny Cleverley.
Manchester United surrendered an eight-point lead, at a later stage of the season, last year, so we cannot yet say the title is in the bag for Ferguson's men. However, it would appear they have learnt their lessons after a thoroughly professional performance at Old Trafford, when they took no chances in the closing stages of there being a repeat of the 4-4 draw with Everton 12 months ago. The Red Devils' next five matches are all against sides currently in the bottom half of the table and they can now turn their focus to a mouth-watering European clash with Real Madrid.
Everton should not be too downhearted after only a fourth league defeat of the season, although they are now six points adrift of Tottenham Hotspur in the race for fourth place. Next up for the Toffees are winnable games against Norwich City and Reading, before a potentially decisive trip to Arsenal in March. If Everton can claim maximum points from those three fixtures they have to fancy their chances of clinching Champions League qualification.
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