If any team are to hinder Manchester United's increasingly convincing pursuit of a third successive Premier League title, they must first score a goal against them. It is proving a formidable task.
Last night United and Edwin van der Sar set a new record for English football by passing Reading's previous best of 18 hours and 24 minutes without conceding a goal. More importantly in the bigger scheme of things, they held out for the remaining 18 minutes of the game, to record a 10th successive home victory and move five points clear at the top of the table.
Liverpool and Chelsea can do their worst at Anfield today knowing that they may be playing for second place. Their best hope is that a log-jam of fixtures holds United up, but they could just as easily face the same problem themselves. What Sir Alex Ferguson's team have already done is overcome the disruption of the World Club Championship in Japan and now, a crop of injuries.
Ten absentees last week had been reduced to seven by the return of Rio Ferdinand, Wes Brown and Ji-Sung Park, while, with a clear week to continue their recovery, Wayne Rooney, Nani and Patrice Evra should all be ready for next Sunday's game at West Ham. Michael Carrick was the best player on the pitch for the second week running and Carlos Tevez was as busy and committed as ever. The ever-changing nature of the back-line makes the unparalleled run of clean sheets all the more impressive, the one constant having been Van der Sar.
On other days he has been a hero but here he was required to do no more than field regulation efforts by Tim Cahill and Steven Pienaar. Everton, for all their awful record at Old Trafford – where they have not won since 1992 – have been on an excellent run, especially on the road, and they defended solidly before conceding a penalty from which Cristiano Ronaldo scored just before half-time.
A lack of strikers has handicapped the admirable David Moyes, however, who must now turn his attention to the FA Cup replay against Liverpool on Wednesday. The visitors turned out without any recognised forwards at all, keeping Victor Anichebe in reserve until the last 20 minutes. Cahill and Marouane Fellaini, who had both been doubtful after collecting knocks in midweek, were at least able to start and were the two players furthest forward without finding any joy against Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.
Not surprisingly, the ball was more often than not at the other end right from the start, culminating in a sustained period of pressure on either side of the half-hour mark and eventually a goal. Tim Howard, back on the English ground where he made his name, had saved from Park and then Tevez before Carrick teed up Ronaldo 20 yards out. An instinctive toe-poke struck the inside of Howard's post. The World Footballer of the Year was not content to hug his touchline and when he looped a clever pass into the penalty area, Carrick took it on his chest and volleyed just wide.
Everton's dogged defence was finally breached by the same pair a minute before the interval. Carrick, much more than a defensive midfielder these days, surged into the area and was just clipped by Mikel Arteta. Mark Halsey, well positioned, pointed to the penalty spot, from where Ronaldo's fiercely struck kick defeated Howard. He might even have been given another penalty only four minutes into the second half. Again Carrick burst into the area and again he was checked, this time by Joleon Lescott's lunge, but the referee was unmoved. Everton briefly switched Fellaini to centre-forward with Cahill dropping off him before sending on Anichebe, but he spent much of his time watching Everton defend.
In one of their few further attacks, Ferdinand unwisely put a hand round Lescott's neck in the penalty area, Mr Halsey again waving away all appeals.
On a historic day there was a pleasing piece of symmetry when Ryan Giggs appeared as a substitute, having made his debut in this fixture when Everton last won here, 17 years ago.
"There are 16 matches left but it's better to be top," Ferguson said. "Everton took us right to the wire. If you're not taking that second [goal] chance, you're never sure of the game."
Moyes had said before the match, "We're playing like champions in our own minds." United look the real deal.
Referee: Mark Halsey
Man of the match: Carrick