Manchester United's season began with a wince. It hurt to lose at Goodison but Sir Alex Ferguson may have felt a twinge of concern long before kick-off. The past few weeks were supposed to have been about coaxing footballers towards peak condition but it has looked instead as if injuries were being distributed generously. Several were presented to centre-backs.
So Everton could take heart from the sight of the United midfielder Michael Carrick being press-ganged into the middle of the defence. He did not do very well but neither did his partner, Nemanja Vidic, who had no excuse. The problem with the back four was wholly apparent to the victorious manager, David Moyes.
He knew this was not an evening to utilise Marouane Fellaini as a shield for the back four. Instead, the Belgian was the spearhead that pierced United. Given the nature of the contest, it was almost mandatory that he should settle the outcome by scoring with a header.
There are no grand conclusions to be drawn from a single fixture. In normal circumstances United would cope calmly without, say, Rio Ferdinand, whose capacity to play constantly was already doubted. Ferguson, if he fretted at all after this fixture, would have concerned himself with the shortage of good chances.
The paradox of the evening lay in the fact that there was a generous measure of reassurance for the losers. Ferguson is not inclined to take any setback lightly but the night was not without its consolations. There was promise for United.
Shinji Kagawa, the £17m summer purchase from Borussia Dortmund, looked promising on his debut as he combined with Wayne Rooney. Robin van Persie, bought from Arsenal for £23m, was introduced from the bench. Change can have the feeling of an interruption at the outset but the Dutchman must be a great asset if holds on to the form and fitness witnessed at Arsenal.
All the same, there is only so much satisfaction to be taken in defeat. The occasion will be remembered primarily for the uncontainable showing by Fellaini, but United were not as dull as the result implies. Full credit must go instead to defenders such as the centre-back pairing of Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin. They were indomitable.
It was United who had the fatal moment of fallibility. Tall as Fellaini is, any defence will know it has failed when an opponent scores with a header from a corner-kick. These are rehearsed situations where the advantage lies with markers who have to clear the ball or ensure it runs away harmlessly.
Vidic winced at the loss of a goal that implied a lack of organisation, no matter how much fervour and confidence was being exuded by Fellaini, who rose above Carrick to score. The centre-back knew a basic task had been botched. He agreed that Everton merited a goal but added: "We're never happy when we concede from a set piece."
He said that United had needed to be "more clinical" in attack, but appreciated that a clean sheet could have been winkled out of the game. "When you come to [clubs such as] Everton, who will play long balls into the box, you need big, strong defenders," he said, sounding as if he had been casting around for a duplicate of himself.
Vidic was the key man in defence and therefore takes a little of the blame since his presence and knowhow would have been expected to suffuse the back four. "We won't use injuries as an excuse," said the defender, although the make-up of the back four was far from ideal.
The Serb appreciated that United could not cope easily with the unavailability of some defenders. "The players who came in," Vidic said, "gave their best and hopefully we'll have a couple of defenders ready for the next game. Towards the end Everton looked a bit tired and I believed, even up until the last minutes, we could score because we had some good possession and they sat back a bit."
It is natural for Vidic to have such an interpretation of the result but United were largely ineffective regardless of the possession they had. Indeed, the best openings were still the home side's after they had taken the lead.
There could be pleas of rustiness, injury and the aches of pre-season from United, who also had several men engaged at Euro 2012. For footballers at large, though, there will simply be gladness that a new campaign has opened with proof that Ferguson's side are not always the master of their own destiny, even when at a seeming advantage in the Premier League.
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image: © Andrea Sartorati