Everton made two changes from the side that drew with Blackburn Rovers, replacing Magaye Gueye and John Heitinga with Seamus Coleman and Jack Rodwell, while United made five switches, perhaps with the Champions League in mind – Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Antonio Valencia, Fabio and Darren Gibson coming in. Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney continued in attack.
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The early-game sparring was an even contest, both sides enjoying spells of possession without really troubling the opposition back line. Everton’s possession was, as is to be expected for a visiting side at Old Trafford, much less potent, more content to stroke the ball around the centre of the pitch than press forward in numbers like their hosts. With Rodwell and Phil Neville guarding the Everton defence, United had an additional barrier to break down while the Toffees had to overcome the understandable caution felt by an away side at the home of the league leaders, even with a run of seven games unbeaten propelling them into this fixture. It took a deft through ball from Anderson to create the first meaningful chance of the game but Howard was alert to Hernandez’s shot, while the forward tested the United States international again soon after and inadvertently blocked Anderson’s effort from Valencia’s pull-back as United grew in threat before the break and Everton struggled to cope. Nevertheless, the half ended goalless.
Tim Cahill was introduced for Everton at half-time, replacing the inept Diniyar Bilyaletdinov with Leon Osman shifting to a nominal left wing position, while Jermaine Beckford was withdrawn in favour of Victor Anichebe. The changes made Everton more resolute, the burly Anichebe and the combative Cahill offering a more physical challenge to United’s centre-backs, as well as giving the Toffees greater menace in attack. After riding out the minor increase in Everton’s tempo, United came roaring back, reverting to the suffocating pressure of the first-half and adding to it, removing the off-colour Luis Nani for Michael Owen. The compact nature of Everton’s midfield and its proximity to the defence crowded United to the wings, from where cross after cross was arrowed in, but Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin dealt with the bombardment. Amidst the United dominance came a Rodwell drive that Edwin van der Sar had to tip past the post, a reminder the visitors were not merely a defensive presence.
With 20 minutes remaining United struck the post after a Distin slice and called on Ryan Giggs, Everton responding by swapping Gueye for Coleman. 10 minutes later Howard produced his most spectacular save, tipping a Hernandez header over the bar as the second-half ended much like the first, in a blaze of United chances, but this time Hernandez found a way through the blue wall, heading Valencia’s looped cross past Howard at the far post. Everton made token attempts at finding an equaliser but United held out to confirm three points.