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Carrick peaks as Man Utd take charge

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Phil McNulty | 21:44 GMT, Saturday, 31 January 2009

Michael Carrick's price tag has often been used as a stick to clout him by those not convinced Manchester United were wise to spend £18.6m to secure him from Spurs in July 2006.

The sceptics - and yes, I was one of them - questioned such lavish expenditure on a player who, although gifted, was not even close to establishing himself with England when he arrived at Old Trafford.

It is the clearest indication of Carrick's development into the complete modern midfield player that he now looks something of a bargain when set against some of the fees being demanded - and in certain cases actually paid - in the current climate.

Mention the £18.6m now and the silence is deafening, because to watch him at close quarters in United's narrow, but vital, victory over Everton at Old Trafford was to witness a player coming to full maturity.

Sir Alex Ferguson's defence re-wrote the record books with a 12th successive Premier League clean sheet and Carlos Tevez showed the industy and inspiration that makes him so popular with Manchester United's fans.

But the real star of the show, unfussy but inspirational, was Carrick.

And, with Fabio Capello seemingly plotting an untroubled course to the 2010 World Cupwith England, Carrick now looks ready to muscle in alongside Gareth Barry, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in the scrap for central midfield places.

Michael Carrick in action against Everton

Carrick was United's orchestrator against an Everton side described by Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson in his programme notes as "the Premier League's big success story of the last five years."

He won one penalty, should have had another, started attacks with glorious raking passes, broke up rare Everton forays into United territory and threatened goals. Watch as closely as you liked for flaws - there were none to be seen.

It is little wonder Ferguson appears to be living in a state of footballing nirvana as United start to have that ominous look of champions again, coming to a peak while those around falter.

United have a defence that does not concede, a midfield of variety and strength and an attack that will - more often than not - score. It is a potent cocktail and the title is now Manchester United's to lose.

Everton, resilient as ever, were dogged opponents but never seriously threatened to produce the result that would bring satisfaction to Liverpool and Chelsea as well as themselves.

It took Cristiano Ronaldo's goal to settle affairs, but the gulf between the sides was huge.

Tevez was United's other bright spark - and there is an interesting little sub-plot developing at Old Trafford over his future.

Manchester United fans pose questions to Ferguson in the form of polite requests as opposed to ultimatums, but there is little doubt they are making their feelings plain about what they would like their manager to do when it comes to the Argentine,

I was at the recent win against Chelsea when a gentle jog down the touchline from Tevez was greeted by a standing ovation from large parts of Old Trafford. And again here there were enough chants of "sign him on" to give Sir Alex a shove.

Ferguson is wise to take his time over a Tevez deal. He has plenty of other attacking weaponry - and Tevez would do well to find anywhere better than Old Trafford to ply his trade.

It is a debate that is not affecting Tevez's performance or United's march to the top, so Ferguson will rightly proceed with caution until the right deal can be struck.

Carlos Tevez

As for Everton, it is huge credit to Moyes that he has marshalled such wafer-thin resources into a formidable unit, but there has to be a danger that subjecting such a small squad of players to tests week after week will eventually take its toll.

Everton are built around a superb defensive unit, but Moyes's "needs must" system with Tim Cahill as an auxiliary striker surely needs topping up with re-inforcements.

I asked Moyes whether he feared energy levels may suffer when he sends this gallant band to the well once more against Liverpool in the FA Cup fourth round replay on Wednesday.

He told me: "I was more concerned about today because we played on Wednesday and United played on Tuesday. I'm sure we will be fine against Liverpool when it comes to our energy, it's a reverse now because we have played on Saturday and Liverpool play Sunday."

It was an optimistic message - and one Moyes is correct to deliver because Everton's players have earned the right not to be under-estimated. Ferguson certainly gave them full respect in his pre-match and post-match analysis.

Ferguson also happily admitted he hoped his relaxing Sunday would be brightened by a draw at Anfield - but his main concern is always his own team and they are currently taking care of business for him.

United look to be peaking at just the right time - a view that can be applied with equal confidence to Carrick.

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