Any victory will do as this stage of the season but this is all the sweeter with Liverpool the visitors at Old Trafford. Ji-Sung Park proved the unlikely hero with Manchester United’s second half winner as Sir Alex Ferguson’s men claimed a hard fought victory over Rafa Benitez’ stubborn side to hit the Premier League summit.
But victory was not achieved before the visitors took the lead through Fernando Torres and twice Liverpool came close to snatching a late equaliser, with substitute Yossi Benayoun heading straight at Edwin van der Sar and the Spaniard fluffing a good opportunity.
It would have been overly generous on the visitors who sought merely to contain and break in a game that rarely flowed.
Still, Benitez’ men were out of the traps quickly and ahead inside five minutes after Torres was left criminally unmarked in front of van der Sar’s goal. The largely anonymous Gerrard – outpacing Rio Ferdinand – and Dirk Kuyt were each involved before the Spanish striker headed home for his 16th Premier League goal of the current campaign.
The goal did not bear the obvious mistakes of meetings between these sides over the past two seasons but Ferguson was rightly left fuming nonetheless.
If United needed a response they got it, with Michael Carrick, Park and the immense Darren Fletcher offering the home side a dynamic three-man midfield on which to build a platform. The Korean, chosen in central midfield after an outstanding shift against AC Milan in the same role, proven an inspired choice in an attacking United line-up.
But it was United’s regular right-winger who provided Ferguson’s side with a route back into the tie. Valencia, having an outstanding début season at the club, forced his way past two visiting defenders before Javier Mascherano dragged the Ecuadorian down. An obvious decision for referee Howard Webb, despite Liverpool’s inevitable protests, with the central defender arguably lucky not to see red.
Rooney, later admitting to changing his mind in the run-up, saw his spot-kick saved by Pepe Reina only for the Spaniard to parry the shot into the Scouser’s path. Rooney rarely needs a second invitation to score as he slammed home the equaliser to cap a breathless opening 11 minutes.
United now began to dominated possession against a highly conservative Liverpool as Ferguson and Benitez exchange furious words on the touchline. The Spaniard, surely retaining employment because his employers cannot afford to fire him, had but himself to blame with Liverpool seemingly uninterested in making a game of proceedings.
Indeed, Liverpool’s captain Gerrard cut a desolate figure in midfield while Torres, frustrated by Vidic for the majority of the match, could have picked up three or more yellows for a constant stream of verbal abuse directed at the official.
It played into United’s hands and despite Liverpool’s inhibited approach the Reds scored a deserved winner on the hour as Fletcher’s superb right-wing cross found Park eight yards out for the Korean to score with a classic diving header.
”In these intense matches you just want to win them,” said Ferguson, engaged in an unseemly finger jabbing contest with his opposite number in the first half.
“At this stage of the season, winning is the name of the game. We’ve been very consistent in the last two or three months. For periods today we played well, and in other periods we had to dig in and concentrate.”
Ferguson, though, was unhappy with Webb’s decision to show Mascherano only yellow. Given that Nemanja Vidic received his marching orders against this opposition in the last three matches.
”I thought that with the penalty incident, it should have been a red card. There was no chance that Jamie Carragher could have got across because Valencia was too quick for him. Absolutely no way,” added Fergison.
“OK we got the penalty but if you stop a player from having a goalscoring opportunity it’s a red card. Not today it wasn’t. Mascherano tugged him outside the area, but didn’t bring him down, it was only when Valencia got into the box he brought him down. So it was the right decision.”
The manager praised defensive duo Ferdinand and Vidic, who did so much to keep Liverpool’s rare forray’s into the United half at bay despite the early aberration.
”It’s always difficult to lose a goal and come back and win. I was disappointed with Torres’ goal, he was unmarked. We didn’t defend it well. But we recovered from it and that is the important thing.
“It’s a great quality that Manchester United have, and it’s that quality that won us the game.”
Indeed it is but Ferguson must also take credit for taking the bold move to shift Park inside in recent matches, while leaving in-form Dimitar Berbatov on the bench. Hard on the Bulgarian, but Park’s willing running and energy from midfield negated Gerrard’s influence and starved Torres of the ball.
On the day Chelsea dropped points at Blackburn momentum shifted significantly in the title race.