Manchester United and Ronaldo lose hunger for fight
Everton 1 Manchester United 1
Where does Sir Alex Ferguson begin to dissect this morning a performance that so reeked of self-satisfaction it made a mockery of the belief that his champions had found again their old hard edge?
He might, who knows, begin with his own decision to preserve the illusion that Cristiano Ronaldo can do any more for Manchester United than stew in his own self-regard.
It may be true that the roots of United's slide from absolute control ran deeper and wider than Portuguese narcissism, but it was still impossible not to note the comparison with the Ronaldo of last season and the one who fretted and pouted his way through a match that came within a heartbeat of being surrendered.
Last season Ronaldo was plainly on an extraordinary mission, and even if a lot of the motivation may, as it turned out, have been to do with his own standing in the world of football – one which he is currently announcing as unquestionably without a challenge – there could be no questioning its prime value to United's renaissance.
On the evidence provided here, Ronaldo's mission appears to be complete, at least in his own mind and on this island. His body language would have looked disenchanted on the back of a lorry filled with disconsolately homesick fruit-pickers.
Maybe, for everyone's good, Ferguson might consider a team-building principle that has always been fundamental to all his work. It is one that says the fibre of a team is often conditioned by its least committed heart. Players like David Beckham, Jaap Stam and Ruud van Nistelrooy ultimately all had their loyalties and priorities examined without a scintilla of sentiment. Maybe Ronaldo is due such a slide-rule assessment. It was a possibility that certainly brushed against the consciousness when he rolled in risibly exaggerated agony after a tackle by his former team-mate Phil Neville which, on re-examination, justified the Everton manager David Moyes' judgement that it was one "spot on by a professional trying to do the best for his team".
Was Ronaldo doing that? Not, given his skill levels, you had to suspect when he blasted wide a late chance to retrieve the victory that early on looked, with a barrage of flicks and other niceties by such as Ryan Giggs and Dimitar Berbatov, no more than a formality.
Maybe Fergie reckons that Ronaldo is merely making a slow recovery from injury and that he is just an eruption or two away from all his old elan. But in whose shirt? Whatever the outcome, it is one of the more intriguing aspects of United's effort to get back on terms with the elite of English football – and Hull City. What certainly wasn't in question here was the impatience of the United fans, who soon enough were crying for Argentina in form of the benched Carlos Tevez. They wanted a sense of urgency that was rarely conveyed even when United were pulling all the strings and the admirable Giggs sent a pass beautifully into the path of a biting run by Darren Fletcher.
That goal perfectly illustrated the command that was so easily within the reach of United but unfortunately it inspired little more than the lazy belief that another United triumph here was a formality.
Wayne Rooney's decline from his recent mastery of all circumstances and challenges no doubt was partly to do with the intensity of his desire to score his 100th goal in the face of the wearisomely predictable torment coming down from the Goodison terraces, but a terrible failure of maturity was confirmed when Ferguson was obliged to call him off the field for fear of a red card. That last happened four years ago in Madrid when the England coach Sven Goran Eriksson was obliged to take the same precaution. Kissing his United shirt, soon after a bullying tackle on Everton's best player, Mikel Arteta, was a flash of an adolescence that has plainly still to run its course.
How much more punishing to the objects of his frustration would have been a touch of the brilliance that has recently been spilling out on behalf of both United and England?
Most worrying of all for Ferguson, Ronaldo's self-absorption and Rooney's angst were infectious, and might well have cost still another point if Rio Ferdinand had not pulled himself out of a terrible bout of failed concentration. He made two rank mistakes, the first preceding Marouane Fellaini's equaliser in the 63rd minute and the second presenting Yakubu with a scorned chance to complete the destruction.
It meant that in the end Moyes had reason to be most satisfied with an afternoon that had threatened to cast further doubt on his ability to continue producing a team capable of running far ahead of the club's investment. Of particular relief, no doubt, was the impact of the £15m Fellaini. Rated on first inspection something of a luxury, the tall young Belgian grew in assurance, especially in the air, to give more than a little foundation to his manager's belief that he may well prove an important element in a new Everton. While rumours swept the ground that potential new owners were running an eye over prospects, Ferguson could be excused a peek into the past rather than the future.
The recent past, that is – a time when the hunger of a team seeking new levels of achievement was self-evident, and when Ronaldo was making his big push to be regarded as the best in the world.
Suddenly, both ambitions seemed to be some way down the agenda. Maybe the need now is for a new one, minus the item which appears to have been, quite unilaterally, resolved by Cristiano Ronaldo.
Goals: Fletcher (22) 0-1; Fellaini (63) 1-1.
Everton (4-4-2): Howard; P Neville, Yobo, Jagielka, Lescott; Pienaar, Fellaini, Osman, Arteta; Yakubu (Vaughan, 88), Saha (Anichebe, 90). Substitutes not used: Nash (gk), Baines, Castillo, Valente, Rodwell.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Ronaldo, Giggs, Fletcher (Tevez, 78), Park (Anderson, 67); Rooney (Nani, 71), Berbatov. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), G Neville, O'Shea, Evans.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).
Booked: Everton Neville, Jagielka, Yobo, Fellaini; Manchester United Brown, Vidic, Rooney.
Man of the match: Giggs.