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Ronaldo United's saviour again

At a time for giving, the unforgiving populated Old Trafford. They included the Everton supporters, taunting Wayne Rooney, and their United counterparts, dusting off their anti-Liverpudlian chants, not heard for all of eight days.

Then there was Cristiano Ronaldo, sating his voracious appetite for goals by denying Everton a much-deserved point, and Tim Cahill, waging a one-man offensive on all things United. And, in the midfield maelstrom, such feisty characters as Tony Hibbert, Phil Neville, Carlos Tevez and Anderson slid in with complete disregard to their own safety. Even referee Howard Webb, strict but invariably correct, was in no mood to let anyone off lightly.

Charity begins at home? Hardly. Not when Ronaldo's ruthlessness earned a ninth successive Premier League victory at Old Trafford. Indeed, the representatives of Unicef, seen with Sir Alex Ferguson before kick-off, must have felt out of place. Still, it is to be hoped that their pleas for comparatively small amounts of money were heeded by the United squad; there must be better uses for £100,000 than their Christmas party.

But not, in a footballing context, anyway, than Ronaldo's weekly salary. He now has 16 goals in 16 games, he has the sort of statistics that even Gerd Muller, in his prime, would have coveted. Of his latest brace, the first was magnificent - a wonderful left-footed shot after a sharp turn baffled Lee Carsley - and the second comparatively mundane, yet more significant. His cool conversion of a penalty ended Everton's 14-match unbeaten run.

'Cristiano composed himself very well and took the penalty expertly,' said Sir Alex Ferguson. 'Ronaldo has always had that great confidence and temperament. He came here with that and he is never going to lose it. That's a great quality he has. We're expecting goals from him all the time. It was a marvellous performance by him.' The award, for Steven Pienaar's foul on Ryan Giggs, was so uncontroversial that David Moyes simply put his hands to his head.

Not that other decisions were as easy. Abuse from the terraces is one of the themes du jour. The other, somewhat inevitably, is refereeing and the willingness of players and fans alike to bend the boundaries of taste and the law, which was evident at Old Trafford.

With the definition of a dangerous tackle a subject debated, not least by managers, there is the sense that a thankless task has just become harder. Deficiencies in tackling technique of some players, coupled with the increasing pace of the game and the mixed standard of officiating in the Premier League, all contribute.

The no-nonsense Webb, one of the less hysterical officials, brandished a quartet of cards in the opening quarter of an hour, a rarity at Old Trafford, but he excelled. Wayne Rooney's was the first name taken yet, rather predictably, the visiting supporters had harsher words for their former idol than Webb.

Rather predictably, he polarised opinion to the extent that he was 'the White Pele' or 'a fat little muppet', depending upon your interpretation, though the latter is hardly the cruellest jibe ever aimed at Rooney.

But, whatever the attempts at wit, the more significant conclusion was that Everton merit serious consideration. Unbeaten for two months, they were two minutes away from extending that run and, in United's back-to-back wins against Liverpool's two teams, this proved much the tougher.

Their resilience was apparent at the back where Moyes praised the central pairing of Phil Jagielka and Joseph Yobo. 'They played exceptionally well today and Joleon Lescott, who we know is a terrific centre half, had to play at left back.' He also made an outstanding goal-line clearance to deny Rooney, when he chipped Tim Howard. Ferguson, meanwhile, was impressed by one of the centre-backs. 'The boy Jagielka, he must have got the last touch five or six times on really difficult crosses,' he said.

Without the injured duo of Mikel Arteta and Leon Osman, Moyes fielded a depleted midfield, yet they still possess a threat. Cahill's ability to sniff out an opening was evident again as the Australian has the attitude of a natural goalscorer, revelling in scruffy strikes and making umpteen advances in the hope of a half-chance.

He had a bona fide opportunity today and took it, rising above Patrice Evra to head in Pienaar's cross, becoming just the third visitor to breach the United defence in the Premier League.

Everton spent much of the subsequent hour on the back foot, with Moyes admitting: 'There's no way you'll come here and dominate possession against the champions. We played well enough to get something out of the game. The next bit is to beat those top four teams and we can do that.'

They can. This is Everton's strongest squad for two decades. Maintaining a challenge on four fronts is something that has eluded most teams, United included, but Moyes' men are managing it. Should Chelsea or Liverpool slip up, they could be the beneficiaries.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Cristiano Ronaldo - He continues to decide games, and does so with elan. Everton provided several contenders, but ultimately Ronaldo had the most important say.

MOAN OF THE MATCH: It was hard to dispute any of the bookings yet, the former professionals, harking back to the 1970s, made an attempt. When a referee who gets decisions right is criticised, they merit sympathy.

MAN UNITED VERDICT: Below their best but rescued by Ronaldo, it is a familiar tale. The worries for Ferguson might be that, lacking Owen Hargreaves and Rio Ferdinand, there was a loss of solidity in the centre of defence and a shortage of steel in midfield. Michael Carrick, Hargreaves' deputy, did not enhance his case.

EVERTON VERDICT: Even deprived of a trio of key players and in a rejigged formation, they acquitted themselves better than most do against United. But Yakubu, recently prolific, may discover that Moyes prefers his forwards to do as Andy Johnson does and strive more away from home. Everton's first line of defence starts a long way up the pitch.

THE SOULLESS SOLOISTS: David Moyes' Glaswegian accent can pose problems. Attempting to brand United's individual talents of Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez 'soloists', the majority of his audience were rather bemused that he appeared to be calling them 'soulless'. An intended compliment was almost interpreted as a slight.

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