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Jan 31, 2012

Gibson goal is Everton's just reward

Popularity arrived 18 days too late. He is in the afterlife, as far as Manchester United are concerned, his departure mourned by few. But then, when he appeared out of sight and mind alike, came the chorus that went unaired in his years at Old Trafford. "There's only one Darron Gibson," was the United fans' chant. It was one more than they often wished there was.

Their new hero did not hear the belated acclaim. He was some 35 miles away, plying his trade for Everton. It was at Goodison Park his first, and only, meaningful contribution to United's title tilt occurred. A crisply struck but deflected shot defeated Manchester City, giving Gibson a first goal since a surreal night in the Champions League semi-finals. He joined the ranks of the old boys to do Sir Alex Ferguson a final favour.

City's third defeat in nine league games restored parity to the Premier League summit and left Roberto Mancini making an extraordinary admission. Complacency was the verdict, the manager the prime culprit, he concluded. "I thought this game was maybe easier," he said. "It is a bad night for me. They were my mistakes in this game. I didn't prepare well. We had a problem."

Indeed, it has been a problematic January. His side have exited two competitions and kept the refusenik Carlos Tevez. If City are rarely envious of Everton these days, they might have felt a pang of jealousy when their hosts unveiled a striking signing at half-time. While Mancini's attack is undermanned with Tevez in exile and Mario Balotelli banned, buying Nikica Jelavic and beating City brought rare optimism to Goodison.

But the league leaders tend to be a galvanising force for Everton. Encounters between nouveau riche and aristocratic poor have been one-sided since Joleon Lescott traded Merseyside for Manchester. The one side, however, has been Everton, winners in five of the six meetings between David Moyes and Mancini. This is a grudge match where Glaswegian granite trumps Italian elegance. "Arguably that might be one of my best [wins]," said the Scot. "That's as good as it's been at Everton for a long time."

It was a resounding endorsement of his organisational and motivational prowess. The difference in pedigree can be cancelled out by Everton's capacity to mount rearguard actions against illustrious opponents. Johnny Heitinga and Tony Hibbert are the second-string central-defensive partnership, but they were studies in defiance. Commitment has been the defining theme of Moyes' reign and a refusal to be bowed was apparent in abundance. Unity can outweigh ability and Everton's resolve was unbreakable and unshakeable. "We showed great desire," their manager added. "It was a brilliant effort."

They had talismen along the spine of the side except, arguably, in goal, simply because Tim Howard was shielded so rigorously by his colleagues. The American repelled Micah Richards' early effort and was beaten by Samir Nasri's swerving thunderbolt, but he had a watching brief for the most part. There have only been 81 shots on the Everton goal all season, and just three came from the division's top scorers.

Many an attack foundered before reaching the hosts' defence. Gibson remains an enigma, the goalscorer proving a fringe figure, and at times the magnificent Marouane Fellaini appeared to be the lone central midfielder. While his partner was anonymous, the Belgian was eponymous, involved in everything as dogged destroyer and instigator of counter attacks.

Another giant figure turned in a huge performance. There was something heroic about Denis Stracqualursi; forging a career by dint of being a big lump, he had a nuisance value that gave him an irresistible appeal the longer the night progressed. An early header was cleared off the line by Lescott, but it merely spurred the Argentine on. His lack of talent was no impediment in a relentless performance. His reward came not on the scoresheet, but with a standing ovation that was as unlikely as it was loud.

The decibel levels were only higher on the final whistle and the hour. Then first Royston Drenthe and then Landon Donovan were granted too much room, the latter unselfishly laying the ball back to Gibson, whose shot was redirected by the back of Gareth Barry.

It was the fourth assist in as many games for the American, consistently excellent since trading the warm California sun for the Merseyside cold. While one January addition, the £6 million Jelavic, watched on, two more combined to give Everton a famous win. The Croatian was given a crash course in life at Goodison Park.

"Tonight he would have seen the hard work the players put in," Moyes said. It was a night where heavy industry and honest endeavour rendered City's millions irrelevant and Gibson an improbable folk hero on his old patch.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Denis Stracqualursi – Fellaini, Hibbert and Heitinga are all equally deserving but there is something implausible about the awkward Argentine that makes his performance all the more endearing. It offers hope to limited players everywhere.

EVERTON VERDICT: To understand the scale of the victory, it is worth remembering that one of the division's smaller squads was shorn of Phil Jagielka, Sylvain Distin, Jack Rodwell, Leon Osman and Victor Anichebe as well as the Tottenham-bound Louis Saha. A patched-up team performed wonders; not so much on the ball, where Moyes admitted they could have been better, but in their collective display of character. The challenge now is to defeat lesser sides at Goodison Park.

MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: Nasri posed a threat, David Silva played some lovely passes and, in a match of completely contrasting Argentine attackers, Sergio Aguero showed vignettes of pure class. Yet with Edin Dzeko ineffective again, City worked Howard too rarely. They were in control for large swathes of the game but their inability to make possession tell was costly. It is now a straight fight with United over the final 15 games, and City need to regain a lead: they have the harder fixtures in the last couple of months of the campaign.

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