Just for a short time, most of the second half in fact, it appeared there was going to be a departure from the usual script. Manchester United were throwing everything at the Everton goal and not looking at all like scoring, but it turned out the champions-elect were merely teasing Arsenal and Chelsea. In the end United did not even need nine minutes of stoppage time or a debatable penalty to secure the points.
Antonio Valencia, one of the game's best players, won the ball from Sylvain Distin and sent over a measured cross for Javier Hernández to head a far-post winner with six minutes to spare. It was not even tough on Everton, who had been riding their luck. Like the two London sides with rather more interest in the result, they would have been expecting something like this.
United should have been out of sight by the interval. Everton defended doughtily, but offered almost nothing in attack and Anderson alone produced enough defence-splitting passes to produce a comfortable half-time cushion.
Valencia was not far behind the Brazilian in creating inviting openings, yet with Wayne Rooney and Hernández not really on each other's wavelength and Nani taking the wrong option so frequently you could put money on it, United had nothing to show for an opening period they completely dominated.
Tim Howard made one fine save to punch away a goal-bound shot from Hernández and was also required to prevent a couple of more optimistic efforts from Nani and the Mexican getting past him at the near post. It was not a case of heroics from the Everton goalkeeper keeping a rampant United at bay, it was more a lack of wit and intention from the home side.
When they began rolling square balls to invite Darron Gibson to shoot from outside the area it was a sure sign of a shortage of attacking ideas, though just after Howard's reaction save from Hernández United were unlucky not to take the lead when Valencia used power as well as pace to muscle past Leighton Baines and outstrip the Everton defence on the right.
The winger did everything correctly, looking up from the byline to see who was available for a cut back, only to see Hernández slip in front of goal. Valencia crossed to Nani instead, but with an inevitably that seemed to sum up United's first-half frustration, when the shot came in it struck Hernández in front of goal and bounced to safety. The Little Pea could have done with making himself a bit smaller.
Everton brought Tim Cahill and Victor Anichebe on for the second half, perhaps sensing there might be something in the game for them. United stayed the same and were encouraged by a sharp chance Nani and Hernández helped create for Rooney, superbly snuffed out by an excellent block from Phil Jagielka.
Everton then had a decent penalty shout turned down when Anichebe embarrassed Rio Ferdinand and strode into the box. The United captain appeared to get away with a subtle nudge in the back, though the Everton player would have been better advised to use his obvious strength to stay on his feet.
When United made their first attacking change after an hour it was a surprising one, Michael Owen replacing Nani. With Patrice Evra already introduced and Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick warming up on the touchline few anticipated a third striker. The risk of going all out for a goal was perfectly illustrated when Jack Rodwell produced a snapshot 20 minutes from the end that Edwin van der Sar had to dive at full length to palm round a post.
It began to look as though it might not be United's day when Owen struck the post from Fábio da Silva's cross four minutes after that, although there was still time to send on Giggs for the last quarter of an hour and plenty of time for Valencia and Hernández to resume normal service.
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