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Apr 22, 2012

Comeback kings dethroned

A taste of your own medicine can be bitter indeed. Comebacks are supposed to be Manchester United's forte, the way they assert their authority and demoralise the defeated. They are the team who famously never know they are beaten, the club that leave others wondering how their grasp on a game disappeared.

Not this time. This was the unwanted, unexpected role reversal. Everton did to them what they have done to untold others, rallying with resolve, surging forward with spirit, performing an extraordinary act of escapology. Behind 3-1 and 4-2, they emerged with the most unlikely of draws. United let a lead slip in the game as, now, they might in the title race. On the day Wayne Rooney passed an icon (George Best) in the goalscoring charts, his team failed a test.

Having only dropped two points in three months, United have lost five in the space of three games. It is a costly carelessness, featuring an uncharacteristic negligence at the back that left Sir Alex Ferguson bemoaning what might have been.

"It was a travesty of a result in some ways to play that type of football and concede four goals," he said. "It was terrible defending from us; we've thrown it away." Having conceded once in seven previous home games, they sieved four goals, two of them in a surreal three minutes as Nikica Jelavic and Steven Pienaar ensured Everton borrowed from United's DNA to stage a fantastic fightback.

Whatever the influences, however, it was quintessential Everton. The incessant work rate, the way they pressed to crowd United out, the blend of the physical and technical: all had the hallmarks of David Moyes' men at their finest. Their response to adversity, whether the loss of an FA Cup semi-final to their local rivals, Liverpool, or the absence of the division's outstanding left-back, Leighton Baines, was impeccable.

Sylvain Distin stood in on the flank, keeping Antonio Valencia unusually quiet. Phil Neville was the Sergeant Major in midfield and, if his authority was undermined by his culpability in two goals, it was restored by the way he played a part in two more. Jelavic was the excellent executioner, a fearless finisher with wonderful movement; Fellaini proved an idiosyncratic irritant, ungainly but with unrivalled nuisance value.

"We just didn't deal with the balls into Fellaini, it's as simply that," lamented Ferguson. It was a day when attack proved the best form of defence, when one full-back, Patrice Evra, hit the post after a cross from the other, Rafael, and when Rio Ferdinand almost marked Fergie Time with a wonderful winner. An acrobatic Tim Howard kept his shot out; United's past thwarting their present.

Everton's constant contributed to a bizarre day. If an assist for Tony Hibbert is a collectors' item, two in the same match are almost unheard of. After more than a decade and over 300 games for Everton, the right-back has never scored a goal. A stranger to the final third ventured forward to provide for two; a cross that Jelavic met with a looping header from an acute angle, and another that Fellaini volleyed in.

They sandwiched three United strikes: Rooney met Nani's cross with a glancing header; then Welbeck scored a virtuoso goal, with a soft-shoe shuffle to send Johnny Heitinga chasing thin air and a languid curler to leave Howard clawing at it. The ubiquitous forward then provided the inch-perfect pass for Nani to deftly chip Howard. "He's a big-game player," said Ferguson, who had preferred the Portuguese to Ashley Young.

United's fourth goal was Merseyside and Manchester in perfect harmony, Liverpudlian and Longsight lad combining like a modern-day Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke. Rooney and Welbeck exchanged passes before the former slid his shot past Howard.

At which point, as Ferguson said: "We should be coasting and seeing the game out." Everton had other ideas. Twice Neville played the ball into the United box. When he chipped it, Fellaini exerted a magnetic effect, drawing both central defenders towards him. Jonny Evans' unconvincing header dropped for Jelavic to drill it in. Then came Everton's aesthetic effort: Neville with the perceptive, probing pass, Fellaini the surprisingly deft turn and perfect cross and Pienaar the precise finish.

Joy was unconfined for Evertonians. Except one. Only Sir Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and Jack Rowley now stand ahead of Rooney in United's all-time goalscoring charts. He is not better than Best, the surname, superlative and standard at Old Trafford, but he is now numerically superior to him. Rooney used a reunion to cruise past two of United's old greats. A double took him past a Busby Babe and another teenage wunderkind, Dennis Viollet and Best respectively. His score now stands at 180, the darts player's ultimate.

Yet Pienaar provided the arrow to United's hearts. In the numbers game, 4-4 was probably only the fourth most surreal scoreline of the season at Old Trafford after 1-6 (against Manchester City), 8-2 (versus Arsenal) and 2-3 (when Blackburn won) but it left United stunned, almost speechless at their indefatigable opponents' recovery. The comeback kings may be dethroned.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Marouane Fellaini. "Nearly unplayable," in Moyes' opinion. Pushed further forward with Tim Cahill dropped, the Belgian supported Jelavic superbly as well as making his considerable presence felt in the midfield. After fantastic performances against City and Chelsea earlier in the year, Fellaini is proving adept at troubling the best.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Excellent going forward, awful at times at the back. Rafael could be faulted for at least two of the goals while Ferguson's pre-match suggestion Evans is the best defender in the country appeared ill-timed. But Nani, who was involved in each of the first three goals, was terrific and Welbeck, who had two assists to add to his goal, produced possibly his best United display.

EVERTON VERDICT: The prize at stake is lesser for them - winning the Merseyside mini-league, rather than the division as a whole - but Everton were as determined, if not more so, than United. It was a performance of character and quality. Tactically they were excellent, preventing Paul Scholes from controlling the game and finding Leon Osman and Pienaar in space between the lines. If they can re-sign the South African in the summer, they could have a fine year next season.


• Follow Richard Jolly on Twitter: @RichJolly

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