For the most part, David Moyes' Everton sides were largely predictable. Generally, they got off to a slow start to the season, picked up the pace after January, claimed a couple of big results in the dying months of the campaign, but ultimately came up short of a major target. The 2011-12 season was no different, but the stakes for this unexpected result were massive, as Manchester United and Manchester City tussled for the league title.
City entered the day 4 points back of league leaders United, with a monumental Manchester derby on the horizon the following week. United, whose three remaining fixtures were City, Swansea, and Sunderland, could have with a victory against the Toffees had their fate in their own hands, even if they lost to City. As the sides trotted out in front of 75,522 at Old Trafford, the importance of the match was clear. Everton were certainly not without motivation as well, with a finish above Liverpool well in sight, but a Europa League spot was all but out of reach, and the Toffees certainly did not have as much to play for as the Red Devils.
Everton struck first, 33 minutes into play, via the head of Nikica Jelavic. The goal was his fifth of the season, having only signed with the club in January. A review of the highlights certainly reminds Evertonians why the Croatian had supporters so excited about his play. A cross to the far post by Tony Hibbert allowed Jelavic to loft a header over David De Gea and into the side-netting, momentarily quieting Old Trafford.
United would strike back 7 minutes later, naturally from Wayne Rooney. A series of botched clearances put the ball on Nani's foot along the left flank, and a good cross from the Portugal man saw Rooney quickly deposit the ball in the back of the net. The half would close with the score still tied at 1.
In the 57th minute, United would take the lead, but not without some controversy. United's build-up leading to the Danny Welbeck goal moved around a downed Steven Pienaar, who had been injured prior, and the Toffees felt United should have put the ball out of play. Referee Mike Jones did not stop play though, and ultimately another series of poor clearances was much more to blame for the goal than Pienaar's absence.
Just three minutes later, United doubled the lead with a goal from Nani. Sylvain Distin, who was deputizing at left-back with Leighton Baines injured, was caught napping during an attractive build-up outside the Everton box, and Nani was able to make a quick darting run and chip Tim Howard before Distin could react. In fairness, Distin by and large played well in the match, and overall at left back while Baines was out, but he was clearly at fault as it appeared United was posed to pull away.
The Toffees were able to stem the tide in the 67th minute, just as it appeared United smelled blood in the water. Tony Hibbert found himself in a good crossing position again, and the reliable right back put a perfect ball in for Marouane Fellaini, and the big Belgian showed surprising skill as he half-volleyed past De Gea, bringing the score to 3-2.
As soon as it appeared Everton had popped back into it, Wayne Rooney was once again in the middle of breaking down the Everton defense, with Johnny Heitinga as his main victim this time. A beautiful 1-2 passing sequence with Danny Welbeck set Rooney lose behind the center backs, and when Welbeck played him in, all that was left to do was beat Howard from 10 yards out. With 20 minutes remaining, the Toffees found themselves down 4-2.
Surely, for 10 minutes, the title race appeared to be all but over. United, at Old Trafford, was well on their way to a well-earned three points, putting the title well within sight. The back and forth nature of the match had some hearts pounding at the Theater of Dreams, but with a two goal lead and less than a half hour to play, all that could stand between United and a clear path to the title was a nightmare.
Nightmarish though, is perhaps the only way to describe United's defending as the match drew to a close. A harmless ball into the box from Phil Neville found the head of the heavily marked Fellaini, who simply headed the ball across the box in the direction of Jelavic. The red-hot Croatian striker (oh how I wish we could say that of him again) was relatively unmarked, and struck the loose ball on the first touch, beating De Gea to the near post, and drawing Everton to within one in the 83rd minute.
Just two minutes later, the transformation from dream to nightmare would be complete. A lovely build-up along the left that would be quite at home in the Roberto Martinez game plan saw passes between Tim Cahill, Fellaini, and Neville spring Pienaar loose. The South African slid forward, latching a foot onto the ball. The ball nestled into the back of the net before David De Gea could even react. The scoreline was 4-4.
The comeback was complete, though the full extent of Manchester United's nightmare had just begun. 5 minutes later, the whistle blew for full time, with both teams earning a point. Everton would go on to take 8 points from their last 4 games, and remain above Liverpool, finishing 7th. United would go on to lose to City the following week, and though they beat Swansea and Sunderland to close out the season, Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero's heroics against QPR on the final day would ultimately bring the title to the blue side of Manchester.
City certainly deserved their reward, but then-manager Roberto Mancini would have done well to remember the over the summer who else had a crucial role in his side's league title. Upon City's signing of Jack Rodwell, Mancini made a comment about how Rodwell would now be a part of a side that "played to win." Perhaps Mancini will forget this, but certainly Evertonians will not; the Toffees changed the course of the 2011-12 Barclays Premier League season.
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