DAVID MOYES had declared it “incredible” his Everton side found themselves heading to Old Trafford yesterday 20 points adrift of Manchester United having lost the same number of Premier League games.
Ninety minutes later, it was easier to see why.
A difficult afternoon for Moyes and his players underlined the chasm that exists between the two teams and the standard the Goodison outfit must attain if they are to realise their dream of Champions League qualification.
While defeat at United can never be termed a reality check, this must nevertheless be regarded as a sharp slap in the face.
It was also a modicum of revenge for the hosts. Not for the opening-day defeat at Goodison; instead, United were mindful of the remarkable 4-4 draw here last April that effectively turned the title tide towards neighbours City.
Everton were spikey and determined that afternoon, twice fighting back from two goals down. Yesterday, however, they were far, far too compliant as United edged ever-nearer a 20th championship.
The strains of “Glory Glory Man United” played inside the stadium at half-time were prescient as there was never any hint Everton could claw back a similar deficit inflicted by Ryan Giggs and Robin van Persie.
So normal service was resumed in this fixture, the Goodison outfit having now won just five of 42 Premier League meetings between the teams and still without a victory at Old Trafford since August 1992.
Any suggestion Everton could profit from a Sir Alex Ferguson gamble ahead of his team’s Champions League clash at Real Madrid this week was banished when the teamsheets were handed in, United fielding an almost full-strength team.
By contrast, the visitors were dealt the blow of Sylvain Distin being forced to withdraw shortly before kick-off through illness. Inconvenient and unsettling it may have been, but it was no excuse for the off-colour Everton performance that followed.
Having been so positive here last season, this was a far more tentative – and, sadly, familiar – approach to Old Trafford encounters.
While only a fourth defeat of the campaign, Moyes will have been concerned at his team’s meek surrender in the first of several tough away assignments between now and the end of the season.
Everton are now six points adrift of fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur having also fallen behind Arsenal, with two of their next three away games at the North London neighbours.
And with Moyes’s men looked worryingly tired yesterday, the failure to strengthen last month in danger of being one financial squeeze too far.
Defeat, then, on a landmark day for former United duo Tim Howard and Phil Neville, the former celebrating his 250th Premier League appearance for Everton with the latter making his 300th outing on all competitions for the club.