Liverpool put an end to their recent poor run of form in spectacular fashion with a convincing 2-0 victory over bitter rivals Manchester United at Anfield on Sunday. Second half goals from Fernando Torres and David N’Gog earned the Reds a deserved victory from an excellent team performance. This vital triumph closes the gap on United to 4 points, and 6 behind Chlesea, but, perhaps more importantly, will do wonders for the general mood and confidence surrounding all concerned with Liverpool following a tough few weeks.
Of course no one will be naïve enough to suggest that this one result alone rectifies all of the problems which have been on display over recent weeks. But a very good win and an excellent performance against a top side can often be the catalyst for improved form and fortunes. Whilst people are often quick to dissect the negatives after disappointing results, it is also important to appreciate and enjoy an excellent performance such as this.
Liverpool went into their first meeting with Alex Ferguson’s side since their outstanding 4-1 triumph against their old rivals in March last season with little to be confident following a run of 4 straight defeats and sitting 8th in the Premier League. However Fernando Torres gave Rafa and the fans a timely boost, returning to fitness with a typically lethal 80 minute performance. Captain Steven Gerrard was still unfit but Glen Johnson also returned, producing perhaps his most defensively solid performance in a red shirt at right-back.
Benitez chose to adopt a more traditional 4-4-2 formation, with Yossi Benayoun on the right of midfield and Dirk Kuyt in behind Torres in attack. Emiliano Insua retained his place at left-back but Fabio Aurelio was drafted in ahead of the young Argentine on the left wing. This is a role which Aurelio may well become more accustomed to; his excellent delivery into the box gave Liverpool and element which they lack at times, whilst his defensive ability and experience gave Insua able support down United’s right flank.
The Reds have struggled to assert themselves on the opposition and influence midfield too often in recent weeks. But here they were able to dominate for much of the game; posing much the greater threat and creating the better chances. As reigning champions Man United were below par and generally offered little threat.
At kick-off the atmosphere inside Anfield was electric as the home fans rose to the challenge facing the Reds. And Liverpool’s committed and energetic display was able to match the passion and belief in the stands. Liverpool’s midfield duo of Lucas and Javier Mascherano – questioned for their lack of creativity at times this season – dominated the away sides midfield. Mascehrano was at his usual energetic and terrier-like best, whilst Lucas put in one of his most impressive and expansive performances to date. The Brazilian still has his critics but has been efficient and tidy in midfield this season. On Sunday he was to demonstrate greater commitment in the attacking half of the pitch and was rewarded with an assist for David N’Gog’s late second goal. Lucas persistently harried and pressurised United in possession – as did others – on one such occasion robbing the vastly experience Paul Scholes of possession and presenting Kuyt with a chance he should have done better with.
Liverpool dominated the early exchanges and were rewarded with the first genuine chance of the game. Patrice Evra committed one of a number of fouls, this time on Torres on the edge of the area. And the responsibility fell to Aurelio, indisputably the most technically gifted set-piece taker at the club. Having scored from a similar situation last season, the Brazilian forced Edwin Van der Saar into a fine out-stretched save after 14 minutes. The United keeper also blocked the rebound from Kuyt, before the away defence scrambled clear.
Clear chances were generally limited in the first half, although it was Liverpool who were creating them all. Kuyt shot disappointingly wide from an angle after Lucas had caught Scholes in possession. And as the half progressed Aurelio could have given Liverpool the lead again. There were a number of admirable performers but Yossi Benayoun was perhaps the standout performer yet again. In a creative sense the reliable Israeli was the greatest threat and constantly involved in the attacking play. His superbly flighted cross from the right to the far post was met by the head of Aurelio but collected comfortably by Van der Saar. Man United’s only chance of note fell to Wayne Rooney following a cross from the dangerous Antonio Valencia but Pepe Reina was able to gather.
The home side continued their dominance after the interval. Following more excellent play by Benayoun early in the second half Kuyt probably should have shot rather than returning to the winger. But the breakthrough eventually arrived to a vociferous reception from the home crowd after 65 minutes. Torres was the hero again. The lethal Spaniard had looked consistently dangerous throughout despite Benitez later suggesting he was only 80% fit. Although chances had been limited, largely due to United’s tactic –and particularly that of Nemanja Vidic – to persistently foul the striker. Torres got his reward though, with another crucial goal. Benayoun was again involved, playing the ball through for ‘El Nino’ after an interchange of passes with Kuyt. Torres made Rio Ferdinand look lethargic before comprehensively driving the ball high into the net past Van der Saar from an angle.
Liverpool’s ingenuity and perseverance had got its reward. Ferguson introduced Nani and Michael Owen to the anticipated crescendo of boos and jeers in an attempt to change to pattern to the game soon after. However Liverpool were able to hold out for victory relatively comfortably. Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger were colossal at the back. The commitment of both was commendable; Carragher’s leadership was again vital but he also contributed a number of excellent blocks and challenges, whilst Agger reminded everyone of the quality he possesses with an accomplished display.
Valcencia struck the top of the crossbar from wide on the right late on. Carragher was only almost caught out on one occasion, when his old friend Owen got the better of him and appeared to have a run at goal. Carragher brought the substitute down and received a booking which some have argued could well have been a red card, although others may well have got back to cover. When Vidic did the same to Kuyt in the centre circle soon after, as United pushed forward, the Serb received a deserved second booking after some persistent fouling throughout. The dismissal of Vidic – now encouragingly terrified of Torres – with one minute remaining plus stoppages, for the third time in succession in this fixture, made Liverpool’s task somewhat more comfortable.
Rafa still chose to introduce an extra defender in the shape of Martin Skrtel in injury time, as Liverpool sought to hang on for the three points. But ultimately the Reds were able to romp to victory in style. With United over-committing players forward Lucas broke clear and played through N’Gog – introduced for Torres on 80 minutes – in acres of space with a clean run at goal. The young French striker kept his cool to slot under Van der Saar and confirm victory with just about the last kick of the match. Mascherano was sent from the field for a second bookable offence just prior to N’Gog’s finish to place a slight negative on the result. But nothing could dampen the joy and ecstasy of all those of Liverpool allegiance inside Anfield at the final whistle after a resounding and much welcome victory.