This was the kind of thing that Manchester United are supposed to specialise in. The winner scored against the countdown clock, Alex Ferguson seemingly capable of summoning goals by telekinesis as he smacks on his gum in the dug out.
t Anfield yesterday, however, the boot was on the other foot.
On Dirk Kuyt's foot, to be precise. Liverpool's indefatigable Dutchman has had to make do with a more peripheral role this season and had not scored since September. If this was the goal to kick-start Kuyt's season, it capped a week in which Liverpool revitalised theirs.
The players arrived in training at the beginning of the week with Dalglish's indictment of their insipid performance in defeat against Bolton still fresh; they ended it with victory over both Manchester clubs, and a place in the final of the Carling Cup and the fifth round of the FA Cup.
The defining moment came in the 88th minute. Pepe Reina sent a kick deep into the United half. Jonny Evans, who had previously competed well against Andy Carroll in the air, had got the wrong side of the Liverpool striker, who glanced a clever header into the right-hand channel.
Kuyt had set off in anticipation -- the Dutchman was being played onside by Chris Smalling -- and ran into the channel left by Patrice Evra. With the Kop rearing up behind the goal, Kuyt let the ball run across him before catching it with his laces, sending his low shot past David de Gea.
The build up to the game had obviously been dominated by the Luis Suarez issue: this was the first time the two clubs had met since.
While Patrice Evra was persistently booed by some Liverpool fans, there was no needle on the pitch. There was plenty of aggression but no malice -- although Maxi Rodriguez should have been sent off for a reckless two-footed challenge on Ryan Giggs. He was lucky to leave the field substituted rather than dismissed.
Otherwise Liverpool fought hard and fair for the ball, but then let it go too easily. Even Dalglish conceded that United had had the better of the game in terms of possession. Paul Scholes gave his most accomplished performance since coming out of retirement, passing and moving and conducting the play. Liverpool are an aggressive pressing team but they could not get near the 37-year-old maestro.
Yet for all United's possession, they struggled to create clear sights of Reina's goal. Antonio Valencia had given them an early scare when his crisply struck shot from range thudded against the post but otherwise Liverpool were resolute. Martin Skrtel was outstanding at the back, winning his big challenges and covering when Reina had been rounded by Danny Welbeck.
It was Skrtel's defensive partner, Dan Agger, who opened the scoring. Jose Enrique's powerful shot had hit Smalling on the head and looped behind for a corner. Steven Gerrard delivered the ball at pace, the ball swinging in. De Gea came off his line but with a sprawling pack of players in front of him, realised he wouldn't make it. As every other player seemed to be collapsing towards the turf, Agger leapt highest and headed goalwards.
To add to De Gea's sense of impotence, the ball skimmed his quiff as it went into the net. The United goalkeeper looked jittery thereafter. Not that Liverpool were immune to defensive errors themselves.
Valencia had sent an imaginative flick in behind Enrique but the Spanish left-back appeared to have it covered. Instead of clearing though, he took a touch and was robbed by Rafael. He carried the ball to the by-line and pulled it back for Park Ji-sung to meet it with a fine finish at the near post.
The momentum was with United but after the break the game became fragmented. Dalglish energised his side with the introduction of Charlie Adam and Kuyt and, with Ferguson replacing Scholes, the balance shifted in Liverpool's favour. "I was looking to win it," Ferguson said. "That is why I put Javier Hernandez on [for Scholes]. I thought his pace around the edge of the box would be difficult to handle. To lose it is a real sickening blow." There were intimations that that blow was about to be delivered. Gerrard had a free-kick saved in front of the Kop and Adam nearly caught De Gea out of position with a low shot from range.
With just two minutes left, Kuyt, not for the first time in his Anfield, came up with a decisive late goal. "The players showed tremendous commitment and great heart," Dalglish said. "United might have been the better side in terms of possession but apart from the goal and hitting the post, Pepe Reina did not have much to do. The players have shown the effort and commitment to take us in the right direction." With Suarez returning from suspension next week and no European distractions, Liverpool suddenly have two credible trophy challenges. What a difference a week makes.
Sunday Indo Sport