There was a Ronaldo-esque celebration. Just not from Cristiano Ronaldo, which rather summed up Manchester United’s day.
Andros Townsend explained that he was paying tribute to a hero as he enjoyed Everton’s equaliser, rather than mocking him, but United had greater concerns as they had a third setback in four games at Old Trafford.
This time Ronaldo could not produce a sequel. There was no second injury-time decider at Old Trafford in four days. There was the same frenzied atmosphere in stoppage time, but a different conclusion.
United were held. Everton were rightly happy, the Herculean efforts of a depleted band earning them a deserved point. Even as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could reflect with satisfaction on an unexpected choice that was justified, as the recalled Anthony Martial scored a first goal since February, United continued to stutter and stumble. They could have gone top of the league but, despite taking the lead, they lacked the conviction and coherence.
Ronaldo was a subplot, perhaps, as well as a substitute. He was rested for 55 minutes, summoned to a huge ovation as he and Jadon Sancho came on for Edinson Cavani and Martial.
He entered with United leading and departed with them having dropped points after Solskjaer’s superstar substitutes threatened more late drama.
Ronaldo whipped a shot across the face of goal, Paul Pogba curled a shot just wide, with a motionless Pickford watching, and Sancho rolled a low shot at the goalkeeper.
This time, however, there was no rescue act, nothing to camouflage United’s problems. They have now have a solitary clean sheet in 18 games. “We conceded one and that's one too many,” Solskjaer said. “We dominated the game, we just couldn't get that second goal you need,” he insisted.
United did indeed muster 72 per cent of possession though whether that qualified as domination is another matter. It felt more like wastefulness.
Bruno Fernandes was altogether blunter than his manager. “We should win this game,” he said. “We should create more chances. We should not concede that kind of goal. It's not the first time and we have to look at our mistakes.”
But it began well. Martial may have represented the surprise selection. His start to the season has been wretched and, when he headed an early chance wide, the sense was that he was spurning another opportunity.
Instead, he struck in glorious fashion, latching on to Fernandes’ pass, curling a shot into the top corner. It was his just his third United goal in 25 games. “A great goal,” said Solskjaer.
He had also recalled Cavani, who probably ought to have scored when he met Fred’s cross, but Jordan Pickford clawed his header away. Yet Everton posed a threat: Michael Keane, once of the United academy, glanced a header wide.
Everton settled into their 4-4-1-1 formation, challenged United to break them down and excelled on electric counter-attacks. David de Gea marked his 450th United appearance with a sharp save to push Demarai Gray’s skimming drive away. Gray was a menace, gliding past defenders, rolling a shot narrowly wide, looking a bargain at £1.7 million.
His speed brought an equaliser. It stemmed from United’s poor corner, scuffed by Fernandes. Gray won the ball to surge clear and find Abdoulaye Doucoure. In turn, he picked out Townsend, who angled his shot past De Gea. “We did have enough players behind the ball but we make a couple of bad decisions which cost us in those 10 seconds,” rued Solskjaer.
But Benitez had more to savour. “The goal that Townsend scored was great,” he said. The summer signing has five goals, an unexpected bounty that has helped Everton compensate for the loss of the injured Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
The manager’s meticulousness has improved Everton. Their previous visit to Manchester brought a 5-0 defeat at the Etihad for Carlo Ancelotti’s side. Benitez has transformed them. “Overall, it was a great performance,” he smiled.