Liverpool humiliate United to assert title credentials
Manchester Utd 0 Liverpool 3
This was the famous fixture that was supposed to stir Manchester United's blood, supposedly seeing them show some fight, courage, ambition. But nothing. They surrendered.
It was a shameful display by the champions, casting further doubt on David Moyes' ability to inspire and organise.
Liverpool were worthy winners, superior in every department from back to front, as vibrant as United were lacklustre, as quick in mind and body as Moyes' players were sluggish.
Steven Gerrard converted two penalties, Luis Suarez reached 25 league goals for the season, and Liverpool's jubilant fans waltzed out of Old Trafford singing "we're going to win the league" and lauding Brendan Rodgers.
Liverpool will secure a first title since 1990 if they carry on playing as thrillingly as this, whether this season or next. It will happen. The Liver bird is back on its perch.
The contrast between Rodgers and Moyes was stark. Rodgers was inventive. Moyes was inhibited.
All the oft-stated arguments about United's squad requiring overhauling remain logical but Moyes should be doing so much better with talents of the quality of Robin van Persie, Juan Mata, Adnan Januzaj and Wayne Rooney.
Under Moyes, they are shockingly less than the sum of their individual parts, failing to link effectively. Rooney worked hard but few in United red emerged with reputation unscathed.
Moyes seemed incapable of influencing the flow of the game, even inviting ridicule by sending on Rio Ferdinand, a defender, for Mata, an attacker, when United were 3-0 behind. It was a substitution that reeked of damage limitation, of not wanting to risk an even worse scoreline. That is not the United way; they fight against 3-0s, not accept them.
Moyes has to learn to be a United manager. He has endured some stormy moments in his brief time at Old Trafford and this was surely the full tempest. He has yet to prove he can manage this distinguished club, prove he can follow in such illustrious footsteps as Alex Ferguson, who was looking on here.
So was Rodgers' predecessor. Kenny Dalglish was loving it, leaping from his seat in the directors' box, applauding Gerrard's brace and then smiling broadly as Suarez, the man who now wears Liverpool's celebrated No 7 shirt, applied the coup de grace.
Behind Dalglish sat the great Diego Maradona, resplendent in a smart suit and earrings like chandeliers, saluting Liverpool's expertise with occasional regal waves.
Rodgers' team deserved it. So, too, did the manager himself. Gerrard will command the headlines but they should be shared with Rodgers. He sprang a surprise, shaping Liverpool in diamond formation, taking control of the centre, and setting Moyes a puzzle the Scot could not fathom.
Using Raheem Sterling at the tip of the diamond totally bemused Marouane Fellaini. Gerrard was at the base, launching moves. Jordan Henderson and the tireless Joe Allen tucked in. Jon Flanagan, brimming with confidence, albeit occasionally rash, and Glen Johnson galloped down the flanks. Suarez moved with his usual damaging stealth, while Daniel Sturridge constantly worried Nemanja Vidic and Phil Jones.
Scarcely had the game started than Sturridge, released by Henderson, shot wide. Flanagan embarked on a weaving run, taking him past Mata, Rafael and Rooney.
Rooney lamented that this was one of the worst days in his career and this is a man who has hobbled off in a European Championship (in Lisbon in 2004), been sent off in a World Cup (Gelsenkirchen, 2006), been booed off in a World Cup (Cape Town, 2010) and finished worst off in two Champions League finals (Rome, 2009 and Wembley, 2011). This was that distressing an experience for such a competitor as Rooney.
Rafael was lacking match intelligence. After 32 minutes, he clattered Gerrard down near the Liverpool fans, who bayed in anger. Their captain was rolling on the grass, holding his ankle. Mark Clattenburg brandished the yellow card at Rafael, who was immediately applauded by United fans. Usual derby-day rules applied.
Gerrard did not take long to exact legitimate revenge. Having clambered to his feet as the stretcher was waved away, he was soon presented with his first penalty chance after Rafael handled the ball, following a quick-fire attack involving Sterling, Sturridge and Suarez. How Rafael, already booked, was not walking towards a running bath was down to the extraordinary clemency of Clattenburg. Gerrard drove his first penalty past David de Gea. Liverpool had the goal to reflect their control.
Rafael then created a chance for Van Persie but Martin Skrtel blocked.
Skrtel highlighted the supreme desire of Rodgers' players to preserve their lead by throwing his body in the way of Rooney's shot.
It was United's only assertive spell of the game. Old Trafford was still never mutinous. As he walked towards the Stretford End at half-time, Moyes' body language hardly instilled confidence that he could rally or scare his players into turning this game around. Sure enough, within 25 seconds of the resumption, United fell further behind. Jones' challenge on Allen sent the Welshman sprawling and the nerveless Gerrard placed the penalty low past De Gea before planting a kiss on a nearby camera lens.
Gerrard has now scored nine penalties this campaign, eclipsing Jan Molby's eight in 1990-91.
United appealed in vain for penalties for a handball by Johnson and then a Skrtel challenge on Rooney. The fans never rebelled but their resentment simmered, particularly when Fellaini, Moyes' first signing, fired wildly wide and was then muscled off the ball by Joe Allen, who is hardly Joe Calzaghe.
By then, Liverpool fans were chanting "ole" as their attackers toyed with United's disorganised defence, although Flanagan fouled Rafael and was fortunate to escape a second yellow. United needed some guidance from the bench. Moyes hesitated. Rodgers acted. Coutinho sprinted on for Sterling.
With 15 minutes left, Moyes sent on Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley.
Moments before they arrived, Van Persie squandered a golden chance, heading Rooney's cross wide.
Gerrard was then given an opportunity to keep the match-ball when Sturridge dived after being challenged by Vidic. Already cautioned, United's captain duly departed, although not without expressing his legitimate grievance to Clattenburg and Sturridge.
Gerrard's penalty found only the post, denying him the chance to become the first Liverpool player to score a hat-trick at Old Trafford since Fred Howe in 1936.
If justice was done in that incident, Liverpool should have had a penalty moments later when Michael Carrick caught Sturridge. The third goal did arrive when Suarez ran through and beat De Gea. It was all over bar that bizarre substitution of Ferdinand for Mata. United now need to win all their remaining nine league games otherwise they will slump to their lowest ever points total in the Premier League (that 75-point mark coming in 1996-97 and 2003-04).
United are 12 points behind fourth, with Champions League football looking not so much distant as a mirage. Liverpool, though, are looking for the title. (© Daily Telegraph, London)