Sunday 20 August 2017

Scholes conducts tempo but United play second fiddle

These are encouraging times for Liverpool, emerging from a cold winter on and off the field, heading to Wembley in the Carling Cup and now with a fifth-round FA Cup home tie with Brighton to give them hope of further progress towards a fabled venue they used to consider a second home.

Much talk revolves around Kenny Dalglish's strikers, the focus ranging from Luis Suarez to Andy Carroll and Craig Bellamy to Saturday's match-winner Dirk Kuyt, but Liverpool's defence has been so important.

Martin Kelly, free of injury, again enhanced his burgeoning reputation at right-back against Manchester United. One particular tackle on Patrice Evra would have impressed a hardened pickpocket.

Liverpool's central pair of Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger again resembled the most solid of sentries. Skrtel's awareness rescued Pepe Reina when Daniel Welbeck darted through in the second half. Earlier, Agger had risen perfectly to head Liverpool in front from a corner, heaping further embarrassment on David de Gea.

When the goalmouth becomes crowded, United's keeper too often resembles a boy amongst men, struggling to reach his desired destination like a tourist encountering the rush-hour Tube for the first time. Alex Ferguson has a major decision to make on De Gea. If he turns to Anders Lindegaard, United's manager needs to give him an extended run.

As so often, United responded to adversity. Over on the left of Liverpool's defence, the undeniable excellence of Jose Enrique this season was only slightly dented by Rafael's brilliant turn and cutback to Park Ji-sung for United's equaliser six minutes from the break. The Brazilian right-back delivered one of his finest displays for United, even winning a crunching 50-50 with Gerrard.

Park's leveller was totally deserved as United had enjoyed the ball for long periods. The ball certainly seemed to enjoy Paul Scholes, always following him around, as if smitten. Scholes rarely moved much outside of the centre circle. He hardly needed to. Liverpool were sitting deep, allowing Scholes to stay largely unpressurised, spreading the ball over short distance and long.

Dalglish had deployed three central midfielders in Gerrard, Jordan Henderson and the anchoring Jamie Carragher but none got close to Scholes. So he just played the conductor with nobody attempting to break his baton.

Henderson seemed almost in awe. Carragher, filling in for the injured Lucas and Jay Spearing, possesses many enduring defensive qualities but midfield passed him by.

If he features against Wolves tomorrow, Carragher will overtake Emlyn Hughes on Liverpool's all-time league appearances record list with 474, behind only Billy Liddell (492) and Ian Callaghan (640).

But it was another veteran commanding the attention. Scholes (37) was rolling back the years.

Scholes kept playing one-twos with Park, Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick to usher the ball out of tight corners. The way Scholes always looks around before receiving possession, noting his team-mates' positions, is a lesson to any young midfielder. He is the English Xavi. Or as those in Salford say: Xavi is the Spanish Scholes.

With doubts over Jack Wilshere's availability for Euro 2012, there will inevitably be overexcited talk of Fabio Capello attempting to tempt Scholes back. Even if Scholes wanted to spend June in Poland and Ukraine, England should really find a younger accomplice for Gerrard and Scott Parker.

Carrick's form over the past two months merits attention, certainly ahead of Henderson, who has yet to convince at Anfield.

Scholes' mastery prompted Park to observe: "We controlled the ball but we lost concentration and we gave them the final ball for 2-1."

He was referring to a rare moment of naivety from Welbeck. Still raw, the youngster was rash, shooting wildly when more composure might have brought greater reward.

From Pepe Reina's goal-kick, Liverpool went for the jugular. Carroll exploited dozy marking from Jonny Evans to flick on and Kuyt seized on poor positioning by Evra and his finish thudded past De Gea.

From Welbeck's miss to Kuyt's hit: United's Cup dream was gone in 90 seconds.

"We were trying to win the game,'' said Park. "We always try to win. But we lost concentration and gave them the 2-1 goal."

Park remarked that the atmosphere "was not too bad", although the sound of Evra being booed hardly helped Liverpool's attempts to improve their image to a global television audience.

The road to contrition has still to be travelled by Liverpool. They are far more advanced on the road to Wembley. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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