Wednesday 22 November 2017

Ferguson gamble pays off as Chicharito pounces late

DION FANNING, at Anfield

Liverpool and Manchester United tried to squeeze 90 minutes of rivalry, history and bad blood into 20 minutes of action at Anfield yesterday.

Traditionally, this is a game which stands apart from the pattern of the league. Liverpool can win it when they have no chance of a league title or when they can only deny United theirs and there was a time when United's existence was justified by their ability to do the same.

Yesterday both managers saw it as a sign of further progress in the context of a longer game. Liverpool have further to travel but United are also embarking on a radical overhaul, even if they begin from the position of champions.

If Liverpool's plan is to work, they will need a man who has been present on all the important days over the past 10 years.

Steven Gerrard played his first 90 minutes since returning from injury, scored the opening goal and demonstrated that, under Dalglish and as he gets older, he may have the maturity to play an unassuming role in the team.

With Gerrard, it will always be peppered with moments of explosive brilliance. He curled in a free-kick that gave Liverpool the lead but then he also brought calm where once he would have been excitable. "He was everything he's been to the football club up until now," Kenny Dalglish said. He may even have been more.

Gerrard's goal in the 68th minute was the signal for the game to begin. Rio Ferdinand's tap on Charlie Adam's ankle brought down the midfielder who was showing a previously unseen change of pace to charge through United's defence.

Ferdinand should have been booked again but he managed to cause a diversion by accusing Adam of diving. He later admitted he had touched the player. Gerrard curled the free-kick through a hopeless United wall and everything began.

"Nothing happened before that," Alex Ferguson said, and once Liverpool scored he decided to make things happen. United finished with Chicharito, Wayne Rooney and Nani on the pitch, although none of them had started. Chicharito equalised with a moment of opportunistic brilliance which also exposed flaws at the heart of the Liverpool defence.

"It should have been a goal-kick but we've got to defend better," Dalglish said of the corner that led to the goal.

"We're a wee bit unfortunate that Martin Skrtel slipped," Dalglish said of the move that saw Chicharito lose Skrtel just after Danny Welbeck had gained a crucial advantage over Jamie Carragher.

If United could be pleased with their forwards and their goalkeeper -- David De Gea made two crucial saves, one from Dirk Kuyt immediately following United's equaliser and then he tipped a Jordan Henderson volley wide -- there is no concealing their weaknesses.

They were undermined by Rooney's vulnerabilities to begin with at Anfield yesterday. They ended it dependent on Rooney's strengths to conceal their own flaws.

Rooney was left out of United's side as he was "devastated" according to Ferguson by his three-match international suspension which will see him miss England's group games in next summer's European Championships.

When Rooney did come on, he was asked to play in midfield. United were chasing the game at that stage and Rooney's role could have been viewed as an attacking change but it almost told of their problems in midfield.

United were playing their tenth different back four of the season, but, more importantly, an alien midfield with Ryan Giggs, Darren Fletcher and Phil Jones in the centre to begin with.

They started like they hadn't met let alone played together before, failing to put any passes together as Liverpool pushed forward in the opening minutes, even if that adventure soon petered out.

For the first half, Liverpool employed a strategy designed to get the best out of Andy Carroll. Unfortunately Carroll was on the bench.

Luis Suarez was alone up front and Liverpool didn't look to support him, instead slinging crosses into the box. Getting on the end of them, no matter how hard he tries, is not Suarez's game.

It's hard to know if anything else is not his game. Jose Enrique was superb for Liverpool but Suarez provided the life, the invention and the badness. He is a pest, constantly alert and prepared to turn everything to his own advantage. When the ball clearly bounced off his shin and out of play, he instinctively appealed for a Liverpool throw. "He's fantastic. I'm running out of the vocabulary to describe him," Dalglish said.

Suarez should have scored in the first half during a spell when Untied were startled but instead he shot straight at De Gea. It was the easiest of the key saves the Spaniard made.

Dalglish explained United's team selection by pointing to their Champions League game in Romania on Tuesday and the Manchester derby next weekend.

Ferguson seemed to come for a point and when United needed to score to get it, they did, with Chicharito reacting electrically to Liverpool's poor defending.

Liverpool ended in a frenzy with Henderson going close twice and Skrtel wildly volleying over the bar.

"It's a real indication when you go into the dressing room and they're disappointed that they've drawn one-each," Dalglish said, "and we're delighted they're disappointed."

Both sides may take some satisfaction in drawing the sting from a fixture that usually overflows with controversy.

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