Ferguson condemns Liverpool to irrelevance
Man Utd 2
Rooney 12, Park 60
BY the time Alex Ferguson had gathered his thoughts for the television cameras he was playing down this victory as one more triumphant skirmish on the long march to the end of the season, but in less guarded moments you could see just what victory over Liverpool meant to him.
After three straight defeats to the old enemy he has them back exactly where he wants them: with Rafael Benitez ranting about the referee, Fernando Torres trying to talk himself into a red card and Steven Gerrard in the blackest of moods. This is the version of Liverpool that Ferguson much prefers as opposed to the awkward, relentless, united Liverpool of previous encounters.
For the first 12 minutes at least it looked like Benitez might just have done enough to conjure up that same fighting spirit again. They took the lead with the kind of goal that asked fundamental questions of United’s defence and then, bit by bit, their challenge just melted away into the mild Mancunian afternoon.
In the aftermath of Wayne Rooney’s 12th-minute equaliser this game was shaping up to be another one of the classic instalments of English football’s marquee fixture. Liverpool supporters bring out the best in Old Trafford – they force the locals to make some noise – and both managers bring out the worst in each other. Ferguson shooed Benitez away from the fourth official; Benitez appeared to make the yap-yap gesture in response. Yes, it can be juvenile but amid the atmosphere between these two teams it is also great entertainment. Such a pity that Liverpool’s challenge faded so quickly after Rooney had tucked in the rebound to Pepe Reina’s brilliant penalty save.
Back on top of the Premier League, United have shoved aside yet another one of those teams who are capable of beating them. They have done the same to Arsenal twice and now it is Chelsea who represent the last major obstacle in their way, at Old Trafford on April 3, although Manchester City might have something to say about that two weeks on.
City’s victory over Fulham leaves Liverpool in sixth place, four points off Tottenham in fourth place who have played one game fewer. In fifth place City are two points ahead of Benitez’s team and have two games in hand. Even Aston Villa, one point behind Liverpool in seventh, have two games in hand so that fourth Champions League place is slipping from Liverpool’s grip.
To their credit they did not permit United to play their usual game and, by his extremely high standards, Rooney was relatively quiet, although that means these days that he only scores once. Jamie Carragher did a good job on him, playing on the edge at times, but the same could not be said of every one of his team-mates.
In the centre of midfield, Darren Fletcher, and to a lesser extent Michael Carrick, were dominant over Lucas Leiva and Javier Mascherano. Antonio Valencia against Maxi Rodriguez was no contest. In the second half Liverpool created one chance and Torres looked so surprised when the ball arrived in the area that he struck a desperately limp volley into the ground.
Park Ji-sung was an unlikely matchwinner, seeming to benefit from a subtle tactical switch in the second half that meant Ferguson pushed him on further to link up with Rooney. The South Korean is, Ferguson said, capable of playing so many different roles. Last month it was marking Andrea Pirlo out the game in Milan, yesterday he scored the winning goal.
Benitez insisted that the first-half penalty awarded against Mascherano for a foul on Valencia was the wrong decision by the referee, Howard Webb.
But although Mascherano’s tug on the winger’s arm began outside the box it continued once he had crossed into it. When Mascherano did eventually let go the sudden momentum carried Valencia off his feet. It was a close decision but Webb and his assistant Darren Cann got it right.
Earlier, Torres had scored with a brilliantly executed header from Dirk Kuyt’s cross, although United should know by now that they cannot afford to let the striker stray into their area unmarked. Carrick gave the ball away originally but it was the ease with which Gerrard got away from Rio Ferdinand before spreading the ball wide to Kuyt that was alarming for United.
In the aftermath of the award of the penalty to United, Torres became so fraught that he kicked a lump out of the penalty spot which required Rooney to do some gardening before he was happy with the lie of the ball. Given that Torres was later booked for a foul on Park he can be grateful that Webb chose to be lenient on his act of sabotage.
The 33rd goal of Rooney’s season was delayed by a brilliant save by Reina, who guessed correctly to dive to his right. He stopped the ball but succeeded only in pushing it back into the path of Rooney who tucked it away.
With Ferguson chasing Benitez away from the fourth official, Andre Marriner, and Rooney celebrating in front of the Liverpool fans, this had the makings of an epic but Liverpool lost their way. Glen Johnson scarcely ever got forward. Rodriguez required a Terry Butcher-style head bandage for a relatively innocuous heel in the back of his head from Gary Neville. As for Gerrard, there were moments of great willing but slowly the realisation dawned that his band of brothers were not with him.
Torres looked ever more angry. In the first half Edwin van der Sar had taken issue with the striker leaving a foot in for a ball he could not win. Bizarrely, in the midst of the aggro around Neville’s clash with Rodriguez, Torres gave a hug to the United captain and Liverpool hate figure. Rooney began the move for United’s second goal, sweeping the ball out to the right where Fletcher crossed first time. Rooney and Carragher wrestled each other to a standstill and Park stole in to head the ball past Reina.
Had Torres done better with Gerrard’s cross in the 90th minute – and he should have – Liverpool might have stolen a point. But the celebration would only have masked the sense that this team is far from the happy unit that conquered Old Trafford last year. United are back on a familiar path.
Manchester United (4-3-3): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Fletcher, Carrick, Park (Scholes, 87); Valencia, Rooney, Nani (Giggs, 79). Substitutes not used: Berbatov, R Da Silva, Evans, Obertan, Kuszczak (gk).
Liverpool (4-4-1-1): Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Agger, Insua, Kuyt (Aquilani, 73), Mascherano, Lucas (Benayoun, 83), Rodriguez (Babel, 76); Gerrard; Torres. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Kyrgiakos, Ngog, Kelly.
Referee: H Webb (South Yorkshire).
Booked: Manchester United Vidic; Liverpool Mascherano, Torres, Carragher.
Man of the match: Fletcher.