Liverpool beat Sir Alex Ferguson’s men at Anfield in a match where the quality was low and Manchester United’s creativity lesser still. Goals from Fernando Torres and substitute David Ngog were enough to send the travelling support home unhappy on a day when United’s attacking players failed to take advantage of Liverpool’s recent poor form.
Ferguson’s men started the match in ebullient spirits – a midweek Champions League win and the return of Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs and Patrice Evra to the starting line-up adding to a sense of expectation around the United camp. Liverpool, meanwhile, confirmed Captain Steven Gerrard’s absence ahead of kick off.
Deploying both Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov through the middle and an attacking midfield quartet, if Ferguson’s intent was to take the game to the home side then United started brightly enough for the Scot. But despite dominating early possession, Ferguson’s side failed to truly test Pepe Reina in the home goal.
Liverpool began with Torres the lone front man and two holding midfielders protecting a back-four that has looked shorn of confidence in recent weeks.
But resorting to tactics that served the Merseyside side so well in the last clash between the sides at Old Trafford in March, Liverpool unnerved both Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand by quickly switching play from back to front.
If at times Liverpool appears a vehicle for Fernando Torres’ talents and ten makeweights then Sunday’s match did little to dispel the myth.
Edwin van der Sar then brilliantly kept out Fabio Aurelio’s early free-kick and Dirk Kuyt’s shot from the rebound.
Rooney had the ball in the Liverpool net, finishing superbly after Michael Carrick’s through ball, only for the officials to – correctly – rule it offside.
On the United right Antonio Valencia had the measure of Liverpool’s two left-backs Emiliano Insua and Aurellio ahead of him. The latter deployed to protect the young Argentinian, who has looked a liability in recent matches. The Ecuadorian’s pace carved out a chance for Rooney, only for the former Everton striker to glance a header into Reina’s arms. It was United’s best chance of the opening period.
But Liverpool began the second half with purpose and Torres continued to place United’s back-four under pressure. While the home side pressed high up the pitch, United gave away possession with unusually high frequency.
Then came the goal just after the hour, Yossi Benayoun releasing Torres. And with Ferdinand half a yard the wrong side the wrong side of the Spaniard, Torres was able to hold off his marker and smash a finish into the roof of the net at van der Sar’s near post.
Neither defender nor ‘keeper will be completely happy with their contribution to the goal.
The strike galvanised the home side and United – unusually – seemed bereft of creativity, making little impression on Liverpool’s previously porous rearguard.
Paul Scholes – half a yard off the pace – and Dimitar Berbatov made way for Nani and Michael Owen with 15 to go as United sought an equaliser the team’s play barely deserved.
Valencia, remaining positive on the right, then smashed an effort against the bar from a tight angle, after Owen’s pass, and Nani later side-footed straight at Reina. Owen, predictably booed on his return to Anfield, added some focus to United’s attacks if no real threat.
Jamie Carragher then brought down Owen who had a clear run on goal. With no protection between the former Liverpool striker and Reina a red card was not only the law but the least the defender deserved for his cynical foul 25 yards out. Inexplicably official Andre Marriner produced yellow to earn Ferguson’s ire. Earlier the Birmingham-born official had failed to award United a penalty when Carragher clattered Michael Carrick inside the box.
Vidic, protesting, noted the Serbian’s red in last season’s fixture. It was not without irony then that Vidic earned a second yellow for a foul on the half-way line. The first an infringement of very little malice. Yet, Marriner allowed Lucas Leiva nine – count ’em – fouls without seeing yellow. It was a refereeing performance not of bias but of incredible incompetence.
And then with seconds to go – and Ferguson’s team piling forward – Liverpool’s David Ngog scored a second on the break to complete United’s third loss in a row to the great rivals.
Ferguson, predictably and rightly, drew attention to Marriner’s errors.
“All in all Liverpool were the better team but I think it affected our players and the referee,” he said.
“There were so many controversial things that happened we have to feel aggrieved at some of them.”
Ferguson was unhappy with Marrier’s failure to award Carrick a first half penalty, Vidic’s red-card and the failure to send off Carragher.
“He has gone right over the top of the ball,” said Ferguson of the penalty decision.
“If it is outside of the box it is a free kick and maybe a yellow card. But it was inside the box and the referee was only six yards from it. It was another bad decision.
“The most controversial decision was Carragher bringing down Michael Owen. He was clear through.
“The laws of the game were altered to prevent professional fouls of that nature and if Carragher goes off, he is their best player and their captain. It would have been a different game. They would have been under pressure.
“The referee was only four or five yards from it so he cannot use a covering defender as an excuse. Michael was clean through. With Michael’s pace he is going to get away from him.
“The first Vidic booking was the worst decision. It is a foul, fine. But the player has played on, he won the second ball and knocked it for a throw in and got booked. It put Nemanja under pressure.
“The atmosphere is hard to handle for a referee. Whether he had enough experience, I don’t know.”