Thursday 22 March 2018

Park and Fletcher unsung soldiers in Fergie’s army

Benitez cries foul over penalty as Liverpool’s grip on fourth spot slips further

Kevin Garside

THIS was the day of the honest toiler, the day the chorus line delivered in the service of Manchester United, the day fortune settled on the No 13 shirt.

If United are to end Liverpool’s long domination of the English stat book, the contribution of Ji-Sung Rooney, nee Park, and Darren Fletcher will pass into United lore.

Fernando Torres and Wayne Rooney lit up the score board, but on this occasion, not the match. That was the business of a worthy Scot and a South Korean who stood romance on its head to inch United towards a 19th championship.

A banner proclaiming the Thessalonica branch of the Hellas reds stretched across Matt Busby Way. It was the kind of display that grates with the football purist who resents the global appeal of the United brand. For the United supporter it is a part of the club’s identity, a feature of the Old Trafford experience that has its roots in one tragic afternoon in Munich 52 years ago, which internationalised an institution.

Ten years later along comes George Best to embroider an already unique story in the age of the Beatles. The United diaspora was created as little boys from Salford to Sofia, Newton Heath to Naples bought into the romance of the red shirt.

Today they come to watch Rooney script his own epic chapter in United legend, to see Antonio Valencia and Nani dance in the footsteps of Cristiano Ronaldo and Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Best. Rooney was relentless in his harassment of the Liverpool defence. Valencia probed and stretched on a tight string and Nani flowered episodically.

The visit of Liverpool with something to prove does not promote effete decoration. It calls for fire and brimstone, yeoman hearts and forearms like Popeye. Alex Ferguson understands the requirement. Park and Fletcher are his unsung foot soldiers, players who hammer through the hard yards without recourse to stopovers and feints.

Displays like this, a performance that arguably did not deserve all the points, are the difference between first and second. Circumstance shaped the contest. Liverpool had nothing to lose. Yes, they are disputing the fourth Champions League spot but that does not weigh as heavily as the championship.

United appeared the more constrained by the occasion. The early goal by Torres, though resulting from a mistake by Michael Carrick, underscored the mood. Rooney’s penalty eased nerves but did not check Liverpool’s confident stride. At this point in the game Park was a passenger, falling between the myriad stools Ferguson sets out for him. Park is a curious footballer, a player who sometimes gets lost in translation, a reluctant icon in Premier League terms.

“Park is one of those players we can give roles to,” Ferguson said. “He has such intelligence and discipline. Today we found another role for him that was slightly different but was really important for us. He is such a brave little lad that his courage got him the goal.”

Liverpool had controlled the ball impressively, dominated possession in a manner their performances at Wigan and Lille suggested were beyond them, which begs an awkward question of Rafael Benitez. Albert Riera advanced the view that Benitez might be at fault for the long silences he allows between management and the players. He is not the first to argue for a disconnection between Benitez and his staff.

Idiosyncrasy is the Liverpool manager’s special subject. Asked if there were any malice in the trailing boot of Neville that cut a hole in the head of Maxi Rodriguez, Benitez suggested a bird was responsible. Maybe irony in a Spanish accent is a difficult pitch to hit.

Mercifully, after a short tease, he said what he felt about Valencia’s disintegration in the box.

First it was suspicious, then it was a dive. He was not troubled with the dubious nature of the challenge and paid no heed to why his player was pressuring the opponent in the first place. He is not alone in that. Benitez moves on to an uncertain future, rolling out his default mantra of preparing properly for the next game.

Manchester City’s win at Fulham compounded an unprofitable afternoon. Ferguson’s relocates to Bolton for another hostile appointment before the visit of Chelsea. First name on his team sheet after Park and Fletcher?

OK Wayne, you can have a game. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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