Manchester United’s 2012/13 title bid began disappointingly against Everton at Goodison Park on Monday night in a taxing encounter bossed by Toffees forward Marouane Fellaini.
The Belgian created havoc in United’s makeshift defence and scored the only goal of the game on 57 minutes to inflict opening-day defeat on the Reds for the first time since 2004.
Fellaini’s exploits – he won almost every header and dragged the Reds centre-backs all over the pitch – outshone even the debut of Robin van Persie, who was sent on as a substitute with 22 minutes to play.
Try as he might, the Dutchman couldn’t engineer an equaliser on a night when Everton’s route-one tactics proved too tricky to handle for a defence robbed by injury of Rio Ferdinand, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans.
That meant Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia had to slot into a back four that also contained, in Nemanja Vidic, a player who hadn’t experienced any competitive football since 7 December 2011.
Perhaps, then, it was no surprise Everton enjoyed so much success in the final third. Even before Fellaini rattled the woodwork on 14 minutes the hosts had caused mild panic in the Reds’ penalty area from Leighton Baines’ accurate set-piece delivery.
By the half-hour mark, Nikica Jelavic and Steven Pienaar had drawn smart saves from De Gea; United, meanwhile, could boast only of a curling Wayne Rooney free-kick that Tim Howard helped around the post.
Everton’s approach – get the ball forward quickly to Fellaini and feed off the knockdowns, deliver crosses close to De Gea – was predictable