It took little more than two minutes for Manchester United to score on Kenny Dalglish’s return as Liverpool manager; just over half an hour for the visitor’s season to end. An early Ryan Giggs penalty handed United the lead before a wild two-footed lunge from Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard earned a deserved red card and effectively ended the tie.
In the end this was no vintage United performance despite a numerical advantage for around an hour, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s side rarely improving on the mundane. With Liverpool unambitious, and United in no mood to go for the kill, the Reds sealed passage through to an FA Cup fourth round tie with Southampton with some ease.
In the opposition dugout, Dalglish took charge of the visitors’ for the first time in nigh on 20 years. When the 59-year-old Scot from walked away from Anfield in 1991 few expected a return. That Dalglish hasn’t taken charge of a team anywhere for a decade focuses the spotlight even more intensely on Liverpool’s unexpected move.
Yet, in the worse Liverpool side for a generation, Dalglish’s players let him down whatever the post-match bleating from Liverpool’s returning legend and players. First Daniel Agger committed a needless challenge on Dimitar Berbatov with barely 30 seconds gone gifting an, albeit soft, penalty to the home side. Then captain Gerrard, who should be leading from the front, committed a dangerous two-footed tackle on Michael Carrick with just half an hour gone to gain referee Howard Webb’s ire.
“It was a penalty, Dimitar says he was definitely clipped,” said United boss Ferguson
“The replay shows he slightly touched him but the momentum is enough to bring the player down. There is no reason for him to go down anyway. He is not that kind of player. He is on the by-line, he is in the penalty box. I think it was right.
“As for the sending off, there was no doubt. It was two-footed and he was off the ground. Steven Gerrard is not that type of player but it was a reckless challenge. I don’t think he left the referee with any option.”
United began without Nemanja Vidic, whose has a minor thigh problem, and Wayne Rooney, who has not yet recovered from the ankle problem picked up against West Bromwich Albion. With Paul Scholes still on the sidelines, Ferguson opted for a conservative-looking midfield duo of Carrick alongside Darren Fletcher.
It hardly mattered though, with Liverpool committing hari kari seconds into the match. As Berbatov brought down a long ball in the opposition area, Agger needlessly clipped the Bulgarian’s heels. The Dane protested long and hard but contact, although minimal, was enough for World Cup referee Webb to justify the spot kick. Veteran Giggs, who missed his last penalty for United, made no mistake to hand United the lead after barely two minutes.
Liverpool responded with more heart than the players had ever shown under Roy Hodgson. Indeed, the Englishman will have reason to feel results this season may have been different had the Merseysiders done so under his watch.
The visitors rarely threatened Tomasz Kuszack’s goal though, with Fernando Torres ineffective and Gerrard cocooned on the right wing, although Max Rodriguez forced a save from the Pole before the Liverpool captain needlessly saw Red on 30 minutes.
With a man advantage, United enjoyed plenty of possession without showing a killer instinct. Javier Hernández flashed a header wide and then Jonny Evans, on his return to the United side, hit Pepe Reina’s right-hand post just before the interval.
There was more of the same after the break with Rafael da Silva, Patrice Evra and Berbatov all forcing Reina to make smart saves before substitute Michael Owen failed to take two sharp chances as United failed to increase the lead.
“It is amazing it was only 1-0,” added Ferguson, who has not led his side to FA Cup glory since 2004.
“But sometimes, when a team is down to 10 men, you get that kind of resilient attitude. We should have put it to bed in the second half and it could have been three or four.
“But anything can happen at 1-0. The FA Cup is riddled with it. Fortunately, we didn’t do anything stupid today that would have caused us embarrassment.”
In the end United did enough – just enough – to seal a comfortable win. But for the third match in a row Ferguson’s outfit failed to rise above the average, even against mediocre opposition. It’s a worrying trend that will be tested sternly when United visit White Hart Lane next week.
United – 442 – Kuszczak; Rafael Da Silva, Ferdinand, Evans (Smalling 84), Evra; Nani, Carrick, Fletcher (Anderson 62), Giggs; Berbatov, Hernandez (Owen 75).
Stoke – 451 – Reina; Kelly, Agger, Skrtel, Aurelio; Gerrard, Raul Meireles (Shelvey 60), Maxi (Babel 60), Lucas, Kuyt, Torres (Ngog 77).
Attendance – 74,727
Man of the Match – Berbatov
Possession: United 58% – 42% Stoke
Attempts: 16 – 13
On Target: 10 – 5
Corners: 11 – 3
Fouls: 11 – 7