United revival hits a brickwall

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The dark days of ridicule for the Barclays Premier League’s most successful club have now gone.

Nevertheless, there was a reminder here for David Moyes’s successor at United that the task before him remains vast. Moyes lost 2-0 here just over a year ago and it transpired to be his last game in charge. This result for Louis van Gaal was a goal worse, the performance just as disappointing.

The Dutchman’s biggest defeat as United manager, this setback has arrived just when the optimists were beginning to talk as though the repair job at Old Trafford was complete.

There has been talk of a title challenge for next season and hope that United would once more finish above Manchester City this time round.

Consistency remains an issue for United, however, and last week’s rather unjust defeat at Chelsea has now been followed by a failure that was altogether more comprehensive.

With Liverpool threatening to end the season lamely, United really should finish the season comfortably in the Champions League places, even if the gap between the clubs could be a single point by the time United face West Bromwich on Saturday evening.

Nevertheless, there were signs yesterday of weakness in this United side that Van Gaal perhaps presumed he had banished.

The renaissance man Marouane Fellaini, for example, was awful and hauled off at half-time. Juan Mata — never one to influence a game when his team are struggling — was replaced by Angel di Maria.

United’s left defensive flank, meanwhile, represented a permanently half-open door as Paddy McNair and Luke Shaw struggled to deal with the rather predictable threat from Everton’s surging right back Seamus Coleman.

United enjoyed enough possession throughout to get something from the game. They were porous at the back, though, and were put to the sword by an Everton team who have been anything but ruthless for the previous eight months of the season.

Afterwards, Van Gaal claimed his staff had identified complacency during the warm-up. If that is true then maybe the United manager should have said something in his pre-match address to halt it. Regardless, his suggestion that his team lost three individual duels in the build-up to the first goal was telling and James McCarthy’s strike illustrated how the afternoon was to play out for both sides. It came in only the fifth minute and set the tone.

United had begun reasonably well. They passed the ball well at Chelsea last weekend and began this game in a similar groove. As soon as the ball broke loose 10 yards inside the Everton half, though, it seemed as though United were already in trouble.

Seeing green grass ahead of him, McCarthy strode forward to feed Coleman to his right. The Everton defender tried to find Romelu Lukaku breaking through the centre but it was when the ball broke from a red shirt that United really failed.

McCarthy, following up the move he had started, was first to the loose ball but still had much to do. His first touch was not perfect but the attempts to halt his progress from McNair and Daley Blind were weak and McCarthy was able to break through and score from just six yards.

From an Everton point of view, it was a superb, counter-attacking goal. It should have been stopped at source, though, and United’s attempts to gain parity over the next 30 minutes similarly lacked conviction.

Blind could have scored with a shot from the edge of the area and so could Fellaini, while Chris Smalling headed a Mata free-kick straight at Tim Howard.

With so much of the game still to run, there was no sense of panic from United. The next goal was always likely to be crucial, however, and once Everton scored it 10 minutes before half-time the road back already looked too long for Van Gaal’s team.

Once again the danger started down Everton’s right. On this occasion the United defence cleared for a corner but when Baines delivered, John Stones arrived to head his first Everton goal.

Two ahead now, Everton were truly in command for the first time. Van Gaal responded at the break by benching Fellaini — who had been booked — and sending on Radamel Falcao.

Once again, United enjoyed possession. Wayne Rooney was denied by Howard as he shot on the turn following a corner in the 47th minute but at the other end Shaw had to be quick to stop the breaking Ross Barkley.

Barkley was, in truth, having a mixed afternoon. Eventually, however, the 21-year-old got it right, playing the ball smartly over the top towards substitute Kevin Mirallas with 16 minutes left.

Lukaku, breaking through the middle, looked yards offside and probably was. However, the ball had been played in the direction of Mirallas, and as the United defence looked for a flag, the Belgian eased clear to beat David de Gea comfortably and intelligently with his right instep.

In the visiting dug-out, Van Gaal was already preparing his fiercest post-match shellacking of the season. He now has six days to elicit a reaction.

Wayne Rooney has scored only one goal in his last 17 Premier League away games. He has, however, scored 15 in his last 17 at Old Trafford. – Daily Mail

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