Irwin sparks triumph as Red Devils rediscover fire
MANCHESTER UTD 2 LIVERPOOL 0 MANCHESTER UNITED'S players responded to Alex Ferguson's request for greater commitment with a performance full of energy and determination at Old Trafford last night.
Goals from Denis Irwin, a penalty, and Paul Scholes provided the perfect antidote to the disappointment of last Sunday's defeat by Arsenal.
United's wholehearted attitude was embodied best by Gary Neville, who was outstanding in central defence, having been moved there to counter the pace of Michael Owen.
The fixture's timing, switched to accommodate television and European commitments, may have been unusual but certain rituals were swiftly honoured. The tackles in a first half that contained six bookings were as uncompromising as the chants spilling forth from the stands.
As the fans traded ancient and modern taunts, the players' commitment found early confirmation in a confrontation between Jamie Redknapp and Ryan Giggs, players more associated with alchemy than physics.
Nasty challenges punctuated the first half, the worst arriving when Philip Neville went through the back of Steve McManaman. Neville, otherwise neat and tidy, was operating at right-back, so allowing brother Gary to mark Owen. This tactic, which brought the dropping of Henning Berg, worked well in the opening period, particularly towards the end when Gary executed a marvellous rescuing tackle on the Liverpool flyer.
Amid the maelstrom, one man in particular kept his composure. Irwin, such a model professional, rarely betrays his emotions, preferring to focus on keeping the ball moving rather than temperature rising.
And when Brad Friedel, Liverpool's goalkeeper, embarked on a series of mistakes which led to United's first-half goal, Irwin was ready.
Friedel, fluffing a routine clearance early on, had hardly inspired confidence before his 18th minute calamities. Then the American had one of those disastrous spells that have dogged Liverpool's goalmouth in recent years.
He should really have held a daisy-cutter from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but, misjudging the velocity of the shot, allowed the ball to squirm under him for a corner.
The danger did not disappear. From the corner kick, David Beckham curled over a delivery that demanded a clean catch by the 'keeper. Friedel faltered again, punching so poorly that the ball fell towards Jason McAteer, who handled it to concede the initiative to United.
Up stepped Irwin, an Irishman with ice in his veins. The left-back's right foot came down, sending the ball low and hard into the net. Old Trafford dissolved into delight and defiance.
At last Liverpool came to life. McManaman began weaving his magic. Yet he appeared as much Liverpool's problem as solution. Initially stationed on the right, his tendency to drift inside in search of the ball ceded space for Irwin and Ryan Giggs.
Giggs, playing in his preferred flank position, made some impressive runs but the eye was drawn increasingly to the white shirts of Liverpool.
Owen started making good runs but rarely received the right ball, Redknapp began switching play while Ince, relentlessly booed, patrolled midfield like a jealous guard-dog and even found time to test Peter Schmeichel's reflexes with a powerful shot. Yet the real jewel in the central-midfield duel was Scholes, as determined in winning possession as he was dynamic in using it.
The sparring seemingly done, the spleen momentarily exhausted, a real end-to-end match broke out. Liverpool enjoyed the greater possession with Redknapp and McManaman now in sparkling form, their positive intentions keeping United on the back foot.
Solksjaer began foraging back while Giggs and Beckham pushed inside to assist Keane and Scholes. Keane was soon screaming at Dwight Yorke to harry the visitors more.
Liverpool's threat was seen after 57 minutes when Ince, incensed by a Keane challenge, beat United's captain and cut the ball back only for Owen, falling off-balance, to miscue horribly.
Liverpool's best chance arrived when McAteer cut the ball back to Patrik Berger, who forced a rare mistake from Peter Schmeichel. Karl-Heinz Riedle pounced on the loose ball but was offside.
Friedel, partly atoning for his earlier error, did well to block Andy Cole, who had replaced Solskjaer. Then Beckham found Yorke, whose lay-off set up Cole. Stig Inge Bjornebye's block ended the danger.
Liverpool introduced Robbie Fowler but a regrouped United were proving impervious to pressure and they sealed victory in thrilling fashion after 79 minutes.
Following a Liverpool corner, Yorke cleared the ball intelligently to Cole, who made a run 40 yards down the flank, bemusing Phil Babb with his directness and control. Cole's low cross was missed by Fowler and Scholes, reacting brilliantly on the edge of the area, arrowed the ball home. Ferguson's call to arms had been answered.
Daily Telegraph, London