Everton party like it's 1992

Posted by Mark Payne

"Nostalgia isn't what it used to be," or so the saying goes.

The eyes of Manchester United fans were drawn this week to a red carpet and the premier of the film "Class of '92," which celebrates the club's achievements in the previous century. Meanwhile, in the present, after losing 1-0 against Everton on Wednesday night -- the Toffees first victory at Old Trafford since Ryan Giggs was in the youth team -- the champions are falling down the table fast.

Everton arrived in Manchester with a bullish Roberto Martinez looking to make a name for himself. Facing Everton and Newcastle at home in the space of a week is not the kind of program that should fill Manchester United with dread. Nonetheless, nerves were fraying around Old Trafford, the sight of Arsenal nine points ahead in the league was ominous, the now 12-point gap seemingly insurmountable.

"I am anticipating a very hard game," said Edwin van der Sar beforehand on twitter.

United had conceded a spate of needless free kicks against Spurs at the weekend and were punished for similar lapses against Cardiff and Southampton, too. When Everton won a free kick on the edge of the area in the 82nd minute, the home fans feared the worst.

Kevin Mirallas hit the post with a rasping drive and United just couldn't get the ball clear. Bryan Oviedo, who had an immense game at full-back, scored a minute later. United have conceded late goals and equalisers in their past three fixtures, all as a result of needless free kicks. And they have obtained just two points from the last nine.

The champions now face two games a week until mid-January and manager David Moyes made several changes to the team that locked horns with Tottenham in London. Chris Smalling moved to centre-half, finally, and Rafael resumed duties at right-back.

Rafael's vicious crossing proved to be United's most potent weapon moving forwards in a feisty first-half. Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa seemed lacking in sharpness, but United's two best chances fell to the England man. An opportunistic flick of Rooney's boot was gathered by Tim Howard while his back was to goal. The number 10 came even closer when another shot bounced off Sylvain Distin's instep and onto the post.

United applied plenty of pressure but couldn't find the breakthrough. At the other end, Everton knocked on the door themselves. Ross Barkley squandered a decent chance by overhitting a pass when three against two. United have conceded two or more goals in a third of their league fixtures this season and another reshuffled defence was being tested.

Martinez was fully aware of this and talked of "adventure" and "going for the win" on the way to Manchester. His vehemence added edge to a fixture already intriguing because of Moyes' presence on the home bench. As the game ended, the Evertonians in the away stand were gleefully mocking their former manager.

On the field, most of the bristling began with a fascinating duel between Nemanja Vidic and Romelu Lukaku. The two most muscular players on the field were placed in direct conflict with each other and largely cancelled each other out.

As the match wore on, though, proceedings became increasingly unfriendly and Marouane Fellaini, who struggled once again, could have been sent off for trying to pierce an Everton leg with a studded boot.

Moyes threw on Adnan Januzaj and Nani to inspire some pace in a disjointed United, but it was to no avail. Although Januzaj was clumsily tackled by Steven Pienaar in the area on 65 minutes, the referee waved play on. Sometimes they do. Two minutes later, he rode a challenge and danced toward the box before releasing a shot Howard was forced to put over. His class is unquestionable, but he can't carry the team when he is only given half an hour.

For United, the goal simply wouldn't come. At times in the second half they pounded the Everton goal. After 75 minutes, Howard turned away a header from Patrice Evra before Danny Welbeck hit the crossbar with the rebound; seconds later Rooney put over a volley.

The outrageously bearded former United goalkeeper was superb, as were the entire Everton backline. United only managed to register six shots on target in the match and they rarely looked dominant.

Everton were superb and out-battled United in every department to earn this victory. They defended resolutely, attacked in numbers and smothered the midfield. Not for the first time, United were left relying on the individual brilliance of some of their personnel. Rooney looked tired and the lack of Robin van Persie left United's finishing short of composed.

From here, the champions will be happy if they finish fourth.

Mark Payne is the author of "Fergie's Last Stand," now available in paperback here. Follow him on Twitter @MarkJPayne.


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