Everton against Manchester United at Old Trafford in 2012.
United are still attempting to win the Premier League title, Manchester City are in the race too. United hold the lead. The clash at Old Trafford offers an opportunity for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men to ensure they retain the advantage and, potentially, bin off City’s hopes too.
Everton had lost to Liverpool in an emotionally-charged FA Cup semi-final the week prior, leaving them hunting a seventh-placed finish.
United had already pulled back a mid-season points deficit (not to mention shook off a humiliating 6-1 derby reverse on their own turf back in October) and with arguably the inferior squad, managed to pull away from their noisy neighbours in typically imperious fashion. With six games to go the Red Devils were eight points clear and nearly home and dry, but a shock defeat to Wigan made things interesting again.
Now, with four games to go the situation was clear – draw or lose to Everton (and see their hated rivals better relegation-haunted Wolves later that Sunday) and the following week’s derby would give City the opportunity to get their noses in front on the final bend. Win today and no matter what happened at Wolves, United would enter the derby five points ahead with just three to play.
So nerves understandably became frayed when Everton’s January signing Nikica Jelavic looped home an opener after half an hour, a goal just as keenly celebrated in east Manchester as it was across one half of Merseyside.
It was to United’s huge credit that they took this in their stride with Wayne Rooney leveling matters just before the break and then euphoria broke out in the Stretford End when Danny Welbeck brilliantly set himself up for a curled effort approaching the hour mark. That euphoria was greeted with songs about winning the league when Nani made it 3-1 moments later.
Tensions were now suitably eased but the singing and celebrations were still cut through with bravado because even when two goals down, Everton – who had nothing to lose – were clearly up for it.
In midfield a fascinating four-way duel was being duked out between Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick and their ex-team-mates Darron Gibson and Phil Neville and repeatedly the former United stalwarts were gaining the upper hand. This was evidenced mid-way through the second period when the ball was combatively won and spread out wide. The resulting in-swinger was met forcibly by Marouane Fellaini, reducing the arrears.
A mere two minutes later and the two-goal lead and precious breathing space was restored when Rooney (ye gods, how many players have these two clubs swapped back and to in recent years?) finished off a sweeping move and when Nani thundered a header against a post soon after the narrative was established for the remainder of the game. United were never content to simply win such meaningful fixtures but to win them with a swaggering style.
But then Jelavic prodded home his second and with seven minutes left on the clock that narrative was shredded like the home fans’ nerves. They couldn’t, could they? They wouldn’t?
They did. In the game’s late knockings Fellaini displayed some uncharacteristic nifty footwork inside of the United box and squared a perfect pass across for Pienaar, who only had to redirect it goal-bound.
“A throw away,” was how Ferguson described his team’s collapse once it had been absorbed. “An absolute giveaway. I can’t believe it”.
His credulity was stretched even further three weeks later. Aguerrooooo.
What happened next?
Everton secured seventh along with a lifetime’s worth of gratitude from City supporters.
Manchester United saw a 13th title snatched from them in the most incredible of circumstances forcing Ferguson to postpone his retirement plans.