There was risk involved in signing Edinson Cavani on a free at 33 years of age but Manchester United got their reward at Goodison Park.
Two minutes remained of a sterile stalemate with Everton, a penalty shootout beckoned, but the veteran’s class intervened to protect Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s pursuit of a first trophy as United manager in the Carabao Cup.
Cavani produced a delightful finish to finally break the deadlock and steer United into a semi-final reunion with Manchester City next month. Whether he still would have been on the pitch had VAR been employed at the quarter-final stage is debatable, after the Uruguay international foolishly raised a hand to Yerry Mina early in the second half, but that hypothetical could not devalue the merit of United’s victory. Solskjær’s side should have been out of sight before a nervous, subdued and ultimately tired Everton had their first sight of goal.
The second half descended into a torturous watch until Cavani struck, from the substitute Anthony Martial’s assist. Carlo Ancelotti’s team then threw men forward in search of an equaliser and Martial struck a second on the counterattack.
The United manager said of Cavani: “I don’t think he has had a slow start, he has been excellent. He has been injured, he came late and I’m really pleased with his influence in the dressing room, the habits he brings to training and his attitude to the game. He has scored some very important goals for us. He was out for seven months and we have been patient with him but I think he has made a big impact.”
The pattern of the first half was established early. Everton were error-ridden and careless whenever they had possession, which was rarely. United created chances frequently, with Alex Telles a productive source down the left, but lacked the clinical touch to finish them off.
Robin Olsen replaced Jordan Pickford as Ancelotti swapped his goalkeepers for a third time and made an eventful contribution. The Sweden international punched Mina in the nose as they attempted to clear the first of a series of dangerous United corners. He almost let in Cavani by stalling too long over a Michael Keane back-pass and needed a recovery tackle to escape.
There was plenty of opportunity to demonstrate the good and the routine too. Olsen saved at Cavani’s feet after Axel Tuanzebe had dispossessed Ben Godfrey, denied the same player twice more in quick succession at his near post and held a tame header from Paul Pogba when the midfielder was found unmarked by Telles’ corner. Séamus Coleman also produced a vital block to divert Donny van de Beek’s close-range shot from a Pogba back-heel and Mason Greenwood was inches away from converting a diving header from Telles’ left-wing cross.
Everton, no doubt also wondering how they remained on level terms, took 35 minutes to test Dean Henderson for the first time when Dominic Calvert-Lewin headed Gylfi Sigurdsson’s corner straight at the United keeper. Moments later they almost went ahead when Sigurdsson swept a long-range free-kick towards the top corner but Henderson was equal to the effort and pushed over. The home side’s recovery was fleeting.
United, carving through their hosts with neat one-touch triangles, ended the first half back on top and it required an acrobatic interception from Mina to prevent Cavani connecting with Fernandes’ cross in front of goal.
Olsen made another near-post save from Cavani early in the second half after the striker appeared to control Tuanzebe’s cross with an upper arm. He was then involved in a South American spat with Mina when, having been held off the ball by the Colombia defender, he reacted by grabbing his marker around the chin. Again, VAR may have taken a more draconian view on Cavani raising his hand than the referee, Andy Madley, who opted to lecture both players.
Richarlison had to be withdrawn having been left dazed and confused by a collision with Eric Bailly. The contact was purely accidental on the defender’s part but Richarlison’s teammates were visibly unhappy with Fernandes for pushing the Brazilian into the challenge that flattened him.
Solskjær introduced Martial and Marcus Rashford – who received a warm reception from the 2,000 Evertonians inside the stadium for his efforts to feed schoolchildren throughout lockdown – in a bid to inject pace and energy into United’s attack and it paid dividends with two minutes remaining. Martial, dropping deep into midfield, collected Harry Maguire’s ball out of defence and found Cavani lurking with intent on the right of the Everton penalty area. The striker cut inside Ben Godfrey and unleashed an outstanding first-time shot that flew beyond Olsen into the far corner for the game’s decisive moment. The penalty shootout had been averted, and it was no more than United deserved.