IT HAS been a season in which inspiration has given way to perspiration in the Premier League and if it is to culminate with Manchester United crowned as champions of England for the fourth consecutive time, and a record 19th time overall, it will be because no team has run harder or longer, or with such unquenchable desire.
There was little between these old adversaries at Old Trafford yesterday afternoon but, after falling behind to a fifth-minute header from Fernando Torres, United prevailed with goals from Wayne Rooney, following up to convert the rebound after his penalty kick was saved, and Park Ji Sung, two players who, along with Darren Fletcher, embody their team's determination to go the extra mile.
Liverpool, having made the perfect start, ran out of legs yesterday. Perhaps that was to be expected in their third outing in seven days, but there is an energy and a tenacity about United these days that is difficult for any side to live with. In many ways this is the least glamorous of all Alex Ferguson's successful teams at Old Trafford, but they have already scored more goals in the Premier League than in the whole of last season -- if, Rooney's recent goal glut aside, it has rarely been thrilling, it is highly effective.
Perhaps these are the kind of qualities required to sustain a team trying to make history by winning a fourth successive championship. Complacency is among the greatest threats to the teams who become accustomed to winning titles -- as Liverpool discovered in 1984-85 and United in 2001-02 -- but Ferguson's team have overcome that hurdle as impressively as they have the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo, so often their match-winner over the previous three seasons.
In Ronaldo's absence, other players have come to the fore: most obviously Rooney, but also Antonio Valencia, the winger signed from Wigan Athletic to replace Ronaldo, and Fletcher, who has blossomed into a midfield player of real stature. He was certainly the dominant figure yesterday in a midfield in which Javier Mascherano was neutered by an early yellow card and Steven Gerrard was unable to exert any great influence from his advanced role behind Torres.
United had lost their previous three encounters with Liverpool and, intriguingly, Fletcher had been absent on each occasion -- twice through illness and once through injury. But he was clearly up for this one, sprinting 20 yards to beat Gerrard to a loose ball in the early stages.
For a brief time this had looked like being Liverpool's day once again. They struck first, when Torres, with a delightful flick on the halfway line, started a move that picked up pace as Gerrard strode forward and released Dirk Kuyt down the right. Nemanja Vidic went to close down the Dutchman, but the forward's cross picked out Torres, who steered a superb header beyond Edwin van der Sar at the Stretford End.
Liverpool needed to hold firm and retain their composure, but there was always a feeling that Emiliano Insua was a weak link at left back against the pace of Valencia. So it proved in the eleventh minute when Insua's loose header allowed Valencia to surge towards the penalty box.
On his way towards the 18-yard box, Valencia was impeded at least twice by Mascherano and, as he fell into the penalty area, referee Howard Webb was quick to point to the spot. But should it have been a penalty? Mascherano being as cynical as he is, it seemed the indiscretions had ceased before Valencia got into the area.
Mascherano was booked for the foul -- Ferguson felt it should have been a red card for the denial of a goalscoring opportunity -- while Torres, looking increasingly petulant, kicked at the penalty spot, taking away a chunk of turf.
Rooney admitted to changing his mind in the split-second before he took the kick, which was saved well by Pepe Reina, but had the presence of mind to follow up and convert the rebound. Thereafter, the momentum was with the home team.
It had been an explosive start, but that was as good as it got. With both attacks kept at arm's length, save for a cross by Valencia that was headed wide by Park, the rest of the first half was spent wondering whether Torres, booked for an ugly lunge on Park, would talk himself into a sending-off.
The forward looked frustrated, having picked up his fifth yellow card in his past seven matches.
Rafael Benitez's game plan seemed to be working, but the Liverpool that re-emerged after the break lacked spark, with Gerrard and Torres starved of service. Not until the 90th minute did Torres get another glimpse of goal, when his sliced shot resulted in a free header that was wasted by Yossi Benayoun.
By that stage, United were in control. With half an hour remaining, Fletcher popped up on the right wing and swung in a Beckham-esque cross that, with Rooney and Jamie Carragher grappling at each other, was headed in by a gleeful Park.
If perspiration is really the secret of United's success, it is little wonder that Park crops up so often in the big games, having also scored against Arsenal and AC Milan in recent weeks.
Hidden away in the prospectus issued to potential investors in United's highly controversial bond issue in January there was a line stating that "our popularity in certain countries or certain regions might depend, at least in part, on fielding certain players from those countries or regions".
But whatever the commercial motivations behind Park's signing in 2005, in the summer of the Glazers' takeover, he is contributing fully for United -- and if inspiration is scarce, his perspiration is proving invaluable.
© The Times, London