Manchester United moved back to the summit of the Barclay’s Premier League today following a dogged victory over bitter rivals Liverpool. Fernando Torres opened the scoring early in the game but yet another Wayne Rooney goal and a header from Ji-Sung Park ultimately secured victory for the champions.
Having beaten Manchester United in each of their last three encounters, fans of Arsenal and Chelsea would have been optimistic about the likelihood of Liverpool emerging victorious once more this afternoon and in doing denyinh the joint most successful team in league history three valuable points as they look to retain their Premier League Crown for the fourth year in a row.
United kicked the day off in second place following Arsenal‘s win over West Ham last night and despite their recent form Alex Ferguson was firmly aware that failure to secure maximum points against the Merseysiders could very easily see them drop to third by the end of the afternoon given that Chelsea were set to face Blackburn just minutes after the final whistle would sound at Old Trafford. For Liverpool, the three points would be just as important given their position as outsiders in the battle for fourth spot and the much coveted final Champions League place. Rafael Benitez’ side have endured a torrid season but a chance to disrupt the title challenge of their most hated rivals would go along way in lifting some of the gloom that currently surrounds Anfield.
The game began at a rapid pace and inside just seven minutes it looked like United’s rivals were on course for the result they craved. Fernando Torres is becoming a real pain for Manchester United, although his season has been blighted by injury his class remains unquestioned as was further proven when he rose to nod in an excellent Dirk Kuyt cross following some excellent Liverpool build up play. The travelling supporters were rightfully joyous as their hero spun away to once again celebrate in front of over 60,000 fans of the enemy, just like he had last year. United’s defence, run ragged by the Spaniard in the past, looked to have simply disappeared as E”l Nino” jumped unaposed to score the game’s opener.
Manchester United however have not become the most succesful team in modern history by allowing any form of deficit faze them and they immediately set about the task of restoring equilibrium in the game. Within just seven minutes of going behind the hosts were back on level terms.
Antonio Valencia, who is fast proving himself as another of Ferguson’s shrewd signings, raided toward the Liverpool box and was manhandled by Javier Mascherano. The momentum of the Ecuadorian was such that he was able to make it into the penalty box before eventually going down and referee Howard Webb had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Liverpool were outraged but TV replays later proved the official right in his decision. Mascherano was given a yellow card, much to the disgust of Ferguson who believed the Argentine should have been given red. Earlier in the week, Ferguson claimed he was willing to bury the hatchet with Rafael Benitez following years of public spats, but as the two managers stepped up to each other and had to be separated by fourth official Andre Marriner, it became clear that the peace process still has a long way to go.
Rooney stepped up to take the spot kick only for it to be stopped by Jose Reina in the Liverpool goal, however such is the United striker’s prowess in front of goal of late that the ball somehow returned perfectly to his foot and he was left with an easy tap-in for the follow up. It was Rooney’s eight in a row at home and his 33rd of a spectacular season.
Interestingly, before the kick was taken Fernando Torres whose behavioural transfomation into petulance continues at pace, kicked out at the penalty spot and dug up a huge divot, much to the anger of Rooney who questioned Webb over the incident. Fortunately for Torres, who later went on to be yellow carded for a rash tackle on Darren Fletcher, Webb had not seen it so he went unpunished.
By now, Liverpool’s early steam had vanished and United began to take control of the tie. Ji Sung Park had a chance very similar to that of which Torres converted at the other end but was not able to trouble Edwin Van Der Sar while Wayne Rooney finished the half with a free kick that the Spanish goalkeeper dealt with easily.
As the team’s entered for half time, there was a feeling amongst the United fans that the game was there for the taking. Steven Gerrard had been anonymous and besides their goal, Liverpool had otherwise failed to really trouble their opponents.
The second half began at a much slower pace than the first. Torres had a difficult chance in front of the United goal but his acrobatic efforts were not enough to bag his second of the game. Within fifteen minutes of the restart however, United got the all important third goal.
The ball was moved out to the right-flank and Darren Fletcher, who was excellent all game, delivered a peach of a cross into the heart of the Liverpool box where Ji Sung Park (pictured, left) popped up and powered a sweetly placed header past Reina. It was an excellent cross from Flectcher but credit must also go to Gary Neville whose clever decoy run distracted the Liverpool defence and allowed the cross to be so carefully placed.
For Park, it was his third of the season and vindication of Ferguson’s estimation of him as a true big game player. His other goals have come against Arsenal and AC Milan and his employment in a central attacking midfield role on several occasions has been a shrewd move by Ferguson.
With half an hour left, Liverpool would have been expected to go all out for the equalizer however their play was frequently found wanting for some imagination and a long ball to Torres was all too popular an option. Fabio Capello will be desparately hoping that Gerrard recovers his form soon, as it is, the England vice-captain looks extremely low on confidence and massively frustrated both with himself and his team. He was firmly put in the shade by Fletcher today and will be keen to forget his performance in an encounter in which he has so frequently shone in in the past.
The clock ticked down and United seemed destined to happily claim all three points, however the remaining minutes were not without their nervy moments for the hosts. With just seconds of normal time remaining, a ball was rolled across to Torres directly in front of the United goal and only twelve yards out. All in Old Trafford gasped in anticipation but for once, the Liverpool number 9 badly scuffed his shot and United escaped.
In the end, as is often the case in games between these two sides, the game provided far more substance than style but few at United headquarters will care a jot as they took one more massive step toward claiming their nineteenth title and moving forward as outright leaders in that regard as Liverpool continue to remain stuck on eighteen. Delight at the result will have been multiplied by Chelsea‘s failure to beat Blackburn as Carlo Ancelotti’s men could only labour to a 1-1 draw.
For Liverpool the defeat leaves them four points off fourth place despite the fact that they have played more games than each of their rivals. These are desparate times for the Reds and with reports highlighting that they could stand to lose almost £60m of revenue should they fail to qualify for next years Champions League there may be far darker times ahead for a club already feeling the pinch.
Don’t expect many tears from their Northwest neighbours should there demise continue however. Despite their own off field problems, life on the pitch for the Red Devils looks as sunny as ever at the moment.
United for the first time in three outings won the battle, now they must follow up and win up the war. Again.
Man Utd: Van der Sar, Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Valencia, Fletcher, Carrick, Park (Scholes, 87), Nani (Giggs, 79), Rooney.
Unused Subs: Kuszczak, Berbatov, Rafael Da Silva, Jonathan Evans, Obertan.
Liverpool: Reina, Johnson, Carragher, Agger, Insua, Mascherano, Lucas (Benayoun 83), Kuyt (Aquilani 73), Gerrard, Maxi (Babel 76), Torres.
Unused Subs: Cavalieri, Kyrgiakos, Ngog, Kelly.
Referee: Howard Webb