As the winning goal was dispatched, David Moyes looked like a man who had just been told a faulty Christmas light had burned his house down – bent at the knees in agony, his head in his hands. At Old Trafford, a heartbreaking late defeat is always a distinct possibility but for it to be self-inflicted only makes the moment that bit more painful.
"A moment of madness," was how David Moyes described the penalty conceded by Steven Pienaar in the 87th minute: it was the kind of hopeless, lazy tackle you might see in any wheezy works five-a-side game. As Ryan Giggs meandered into the Everton penalty area, the South African lazily jutted out a leg behind him, the United winger tumbled gratefully over it and Cristiano Ronaldo took care of business from there on in.
It was enough to spoil any Evertonian's Christmas. Even their best-laid plans could not take into account the madness of one man or, for that matter, the brilliant improvisation of Ronaldo whose two goals make it 16 for the season. Whether it is a late dramatic penalty to win the match or a fabulous curled goal in the first half he retains the ability to dominate the key moments of games. The wink at the television cameras on full-time was the look of the man who knows that he is getting all the best lines at the moment.
In the words of his manager, Ronaldo is "the boy who has everything", though this was not simply another procession for the Portuguese winger. United were also, Sir Alex Ferguson would have to concede, made to work much harder for their victory than they ever did against Liverpool at Anfield a week earlier. Until Pienaar's gaffe, Everton gave a textbook demonstration of how all less-gifted visiting teams should approach matches at Old Trafford these days.
Everton were unfailingly industrious in breaking up the free-flowing football of the champions and they mercilessly targeted United's weakest point – in this case their disastrous right-back Danny Simpson, who only lasted the first half. Even without Mikel Arteta, out with illness, Moyes's side are one of the Premier League's most efficient dogs of war with a remorseless streak about them that United found hard to handle at times.
And yes, there were some thundering tackles, four corkers in the first 14 minutes that were rightly punished with four yellow cards by the referee Howard Webb, despite the complaints of Ferguson and Moyes. For Fabio Capello, watching, no doubt, in the comparative calm of his Sicilian holiday there was one thoroughly unsettling moment in the fourth minute. Incensed at having been tackled by Tim Cahill, Wayne Rooney chased after the Australian and exacted a pointless revenge to earn the game's first booking.
It was as embarrassing for the England striker as it was predictable: his imminent rush of blood was inevitable as soon as Cahill won the ball and it showed just how hard Rooney still finds controlling his emotions. There were tempers fraying all over the place as Cahill, Tony Hibbert and then Patrice Evra all went into the book in quick succession – the United full-back showing more studs in his challenge than any who preceded him.
With Tomasz Kuszczak in goal for the injured Edwin van der Sar, and Rio Ferdinand and Owen Hargreaves out too, this had the makings of an afternoon in which United's Premier League ambitions took a bruising. The League leaders Arsenal had come through their scare on Saturday and the significance of United winning against the odds yesterday was not lost on Ferguson either. "With Arsenal winning it was an important result for us," the United manager said. "It keeps us in their slipstream."
The first goal on 22 minutes was made from nothing by Ronaldo even if he did have the faintest bit of luck as his shot flew past Tim Howard. The United winger took the ball on his chest in the inside right channel, stepped past Lee Carsley's challenge on the edge of the box and clipped his shot just as the Everton man recovered with a lunge. The ball took the faintest of tweaks off Carsley's boot and left Howard flatfooted.
Five minutes later came the response. Pienaar switched the ball from his left foot to his right to make the space in front of Wes Brown to cross from the left. In the centre the pocket-sized Cahill got above the equally miniature Evra to head the ball down past Kuszczak. This was an act of defiance rarely witnessed at Old Trafford this season – only the third goal they have conceded at home in the Premier League – and it soon became clear why Everton had been unbeaten in 12 games in all competitions up to yesterday.
In defence for Moyes's side, Phil Jagielka, Joseph Yobo and Joleon Lescott were outstanding, the latter heading Rooney's chip off the line in the 33rd minute. United's best performer was Anderson, a midfielder with a lot more devil in him and much more directness than Michael Carrick. His strenuous efforts to get Phil Neville booked in the first half, complete with card-brandishing gestures, only served to earn him a yellow card.
United had been corralled so well that, as the last 15 minutes approached, even the introduction of Louis Saha and a 4-2-4 formation seemed unlikely to open Everton up. Then came Pienaar's moment. His trip on Giggs once again shone the spotlight on Ronaldo for whom these do-or-die moments seem to be a source of strength rather a matter for nervous contemplation. The penalty was duly dispatched, although given the identity of the man taking it no-one ever doubted it would be.
Goals: Ronaldo (22) 1-0; Cahill (27) 1-1; Ronaldo (pen, 88) 2-1.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Kuszczak; Simpson (O'Shea h-t), Brown, Vidic, Evra; Ronaldo, Carrick (Saha, 71), Anderson (Fletcher, 84), Giggs; Rooney, Tevez. Substitutes not used: Heaton (gk), Nani.
Everton (4-4-2): Howard; Hibbert, Yobo, Jagielka, Lescott; Neville, Cahill (Anichebe, 76), Carsley, Pienaar; Johnson, Yakubu (Gravesen, 76). Substitutes not used: Wessels (gk), McFadden, Valente.
Booked: Manchester United Rooney, Evra, Anderson. Everton Cahill, Hibbert, Pienaar.
Referee: H Webb (South Yorkshire).
Man of the match: Anderson.