A defeat at the hands of arch rivals Manchester United at Old Trafford will hardly be the route cause of Liverpool’s demise this season. Instead, the fact that a defeat here was merely the latest in a season of far too many low points, as opposed to a critical blow to the Reds aspirations, serves to highlight how forgettable this campaign has been.
Prior to kick off this was seen as a fixture in which the Reds could perhaps salvage something from their season. Dent United’s title hopes and make it at least more difficult for the men from Old Trafford to win a league title all connected to this club so desperately hope they do not achieve. And give the Reds own downgraded aspirations of Champions League qualification a vital boost.
Fernando Torres’s fifth minute opener gave brief hope that this could be achieved and Liverpool could indeed repeat their heroics of twelve months ago. Yet when the final whistle sounded the Reds fans inside Old Trafford were left with a feeling of disappointment and emptiness. Not only because of the defeat, but also the manner in which it was received by the Reds.
After gaining such a dream start to the match, the visitors failed to truly demonstrate their intentions and ability to win here from there on in. Particularly after Man United went in front in the second half, Liverpool did not show enough desire to get forward and get at a potentially vulnerable United backline.
This against a Man United side who are more disciplined and well instructed, than truly a great team. With Wayne Rooney as the spearhead, the rest of the team do what is required of them, without regularly demonstrating a degree of the spectacular often associated with past United sides.
The fact the hosts are now favourites to collect another Premier League title perhaps highlights the lack of a genuinely top side in the league this season.
Liverpool set out, as expected, in favour containment and defence, over the sort of expansive, attacking display which had put Lille, and particularly Portsmouth, to the sword recently. Yet it was the Reds who started the brighter and took an early lead through Torres.
Steven Gerrard showed intent to get forward and his good pass allowed Dirk Kuyt to expose the United defence. Excellent movement in the box from Torres – who had started the move – allowed the Spaniard to rise unchallenged and spectacularly head Kuyt’s cross beyond Edwin Van der Saar. Nando once again demonstrating his exceptional aerial ability; he times his jump so well, he almost seems to hang in the air.
But that was as good as it got for Liverpool. Having taken a 1-0 lead the Reds seemed to gradually sit deeper and show less attacking intent as the game progressed. Even after Alex Ferguson’s side went 2-1 in front, it took the Reds far too long to release their shackles and demonstrate a desire to attack.
In fairness Man United themselves created few moments to threaten Pepe Reina throughout much of a match which lacked genuine quality for the most part. I guess Liverpool were always likely to be inclined to be less adventurous after scoring a vital opener, as most teams would. Although, the fact that the home side continued to show greater expansiveness than the Reds after they had found an equaliser, meant that United were always more likely to fashion a victory.
That equaliser was rather fortuitous. Much has been made of Howard Webb’s poor display, in particular his decision to award a penalty to United on 12 minutes, a rightly so. This is not the first time the performance of England’s supposed best referee has been the subject of debate this season. And it certainly didn’t aid Liverpool’s cause.
Rafa Benitez has suggested that Antonio Valencia went down too easily, although it was Javier Mascherano’s pushing and pull which presented him with the opportunity. Yet the issue is that no contact seemed to be made in the actual penalty area. Contact between the players began well out of the area and seemed to end on the edge of the box.
Webb awarded the contentious stop kick though. Reina excellently saved Rooney’s first effort. But only succeeded in palming the ball back to the England striker, who agonisingly tapped home the rebound.
This was undoubtedly a major turning point in the game. The 1-0 lead suited Liverpool’s game plan. But having conceded a leveller the Reds needed to be more expansive. Instead United were able to gain a measure of control from there on in.
Valencia was causing Emiliano Insua plenty of problems down the United right. And the Ecuadorian was allowed to cross to Ji-Sung Park in a good position; fortunately the Korean’s header was wayward. Reina also saved comfortably from a Rooney free-kick moments before half time. However there were few moments to trouble Reina, although Liverpool created very little themselves.
In the second half, with the Reds creating little as an attacking force, it always appeared that a draw would be there best hope. So, when Man United took the lead for the first time in the match on the hour mark, the onus was on the away side to come out of their shell and commit bodies forward.
Once again Insua provided United with too much room down the left. This time Darren Fletcher had the space to send in a pin point cross and the Liverpool defence allowed Park to ghost in a head past a helpless Reina from a few yards.
Liverpool had to be more adventurous now to stand a chance of salvaging the game. Changes in personnel eventually came, yet a change to a greater attacking emphasis was much slower in coming. The Reds once again seemed reluctant to switch from plan A. Alberto Aquilani came on, although Benitez persisted with two holding midfielders for too long when chasing the game. Yossi Benayoun eventually replaced Lucas late on.
Rooney was finding more space in and around the Liverpool box. On one occasion taking on the Reds defence before sending a shot wide of the post. But Liverpool were struggling to pose a sustained threat of their own.
And yet Fernando Torres was presented with two chances he would usually relish late on. The first was probably tougher, trying to control and shoot whilst under pressure from Rio Ferdinand. But the second in the dying moments was a gilt edge opportunity for a precious equaliser. Aquilani flicked Gerrard’s ball across the goal onto Torres. The Spaniard found himself in space, directly in front of goal, but fluffed it. The ball looped up to Benayoun, who should have done better than tamely head into the arms of Van der Saar.
Torres can hardly be vilified after the contribution he had already made here and in the last couple of years. But that late chance perhaps best summed up Liverpool’s afternoon and this season as a whole.
Man of the Match
Not many stand out performances for the Reds. Liverpool were generally solid in defence and Agger showed good commitment to keep the lively Rooney in check for the most part. The Dane is also by far the Reds most composed defender with the ball at his feet.