ANYBODY searching for the true point of origin for Everton’s continued top-four challenge should look no further than their most recent visit to Old Trafford.
Wounds still gaping from their FA Cup semi-final collapse against neighbours Liverpool at Wembley the previous weekend, it appeared to be the same old story for David Moyes’s side last April.
In what has infamously become regarded as the most one-sided fixture in Premier League history, the visitors surrendered an early lead and slipped first 3-1 and then 4-2 down with seven minutes remaining.
But their late fightback to secure a remarkable 4-4 draw didn’t just breathe new fire into an ailing campaign. Nor did it just provide a much-needed response to their Cup calamity.
It gave Everton further self-belief their impressive showing since the start of 2012 was no brief revival.
In the 29 Premier League games since, the Goodison outfit have lost only three times to stand just three points adrift of fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur and only a further point behind Chelsea in third.
The memorable opening weekend victory over United, on a bawdy summer night at Goodison, was further evidence of the progress under Moyes – and why the Old Trafford side no longer possess the same psychological hold over their North West rivals.
True, Marouane Fellaini’s header in August secured Everton only their fifth win in 41 Premier League games between the teams, with the Goodison outfit having not won at United since August 1992.
But with Moyes’s men having lost only two of their last six encounters against United, Sunday’s meeting should hold no fears, particularly against a defence that has shipped goals with alarming regularity this season.
That, though, is a criticism that could be similarly thrown at Everton, especially in the wake of their faintly ridiculous 3-3 home draw with relegation-threatened Aston Villa last weekend.
The weekend will underline how times have changed for Nikica Jelavic. Ten months ago, the Croatian was in the midst of the goal-laden start to his Goodison career as he netted twice at Old Trafford. The striker, though, has started the last two games on the bench with Moyes having grown impatient at a return that now reads just three goals in 20 games.
By contrast, Victor Anichebe has made the most of his opportunity. Anichebe has scored three times since returning from injury shortly before Christmas and has also started weighing in with important assists.
“I think it’s gone well,” says Anichebe. “I’ve played a lot of games since I’ve come back. I was out for about eight weeks just before Christmas and I came back and played a lot of football.
“I didn’t really expect to play so much. Now I’m just trying to find my feet; normally when you come back from injury you get eased in but I came straight in to help the team, in whatever way I could. I think it’s the best way as well.”
The Nigerian, who has made more substitute appearances than any other player in Everton’s history, has started the last three games, his shot turned in by Steven Pienaar against Bolton Wanderers and earning a penalty against West Bromwich Albion before netting against Villa.
“I love starting instead of coming on, but sometimes depending on the game or situation I know I might not start,” says Anichebe.
“We’ve got great players here; Jela’s here, Felli’s here and with the system we play, sometimes it’s not easy to always start.
“I like to think I’ve shown what I can do from the start of the match. The great thing for me is that I’m finishing games as well. I’m playing for most of the game, if not all the game, so that’s another positive.
“I can only keep improving. I feel I’m getting stronger and fitter. Some games I feel not as fit as other games but that’s only going to come with more time on the pitch.
“I’ve come up with a few goals recently for the team.
“I should be looking to get more goals as well as looking to help the team in whatever way I can.
“Against Cheltenham, for example, even though I didn’t score, I felt like I contributed. I set up a few goals, and I think you get the same good feeling.”
Anichebe’s versatility has ensured a place in Moyes’s squad since his senior breakthrough seven years ago, but he is now ready to prove his growing maturity as an out-and-out forward.
“I’ve played out on the right, out on the left, but obviously I see myself as a striker as time goes on,” he says.
“I’d like to say I’m maturing with age. Down the years I don’t think I was as mature as I am now.
“I’ve still got more learning to do but I think I’m just growing into myself.
“I’m not really a young player anymore, I’m 24 nearly 25. I’ve been here for a long time and hopefully I can cement a place. I just hope I can keep doing well.”
Sunday could prove a milestone afternoon for two former United players. Tim Howard is in line to make 250th Premier League appearance for Everton while Phil Neville, who sat out Saturday’s draw with Villa, could make his 300th outing in all competitions for the club.
And the skipper says: “We’re not quite at the run-in stage yet but we are in a phrase where every single point counts.
“We want to stay among the leading pack and we are confident we can do so.
“I sense there’s a bit of nervousness among our fans at the moment. That’s understandable because every game is so important with there being so much to play for on two fronts for us.
“But I would urge the fans to just enjoy the ride.
“We’re in a great position in the Premier League table and we have a decent draw in the fifth round of the FA Cup, so why not enjoy yourselves?
“We’ve all got to rise to the challenges that lie ahead but we make no bones about that.
“We all feel that we are on the cusp of something really good.”
Everton FC’s last five Premier League visits to Old Trafford
Apr 2012 Man Utd 4 Everton 4
David Moyes’s men earned a remarkable point. After Nikica Jelavic’s opener, Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Nani put United in control before Marouane Fellaini pulled one back and Rooney scored again. But Jelavic made it 4-3 before Steven Pienaar’s late leveller.
Apr 2011 Man Utd 1 Everton 0
Everton’s dogged resistance was finally broken seven minutes from time as United edged nearer a record 19th championship. Javier Hernandez headed home Antonio Valencia’s cross at the far post after Sylvain Distin had gifted the Old Trafford side possession.
Nov 2009 Man Utd 3 Everton 0
Moyes’s side had no answer to a trademark United steamrollering. Darren Fletcher sent United on their way with a cracking finish before Michael Carrick and a deflected Valencia strike gave Sir Alex Ferguson’s side yet another victory in this fixture.
Jan 2009 Man Utd 1 Everton 0
A rare moment of madness from Mikel Arteta saw the Spaniard foul Carrick and allow Cristiano Ronaldo to score from the spot. During the match, United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar eclipsed the previous league record of 1,104 minutes without conceding a goal.
Dec 2007 Man Utd 2 Everton 1
Pienaar was the fall guy this time, felling Ryan Giggs in the area two minutes from time for Ronaldo to again net and end Everton’s 13-match unbeaten run. Earlier, Cristiano Ronaldo’s 20-yard strike had been equalised by a trademark Tim Cahill header.