The King Returns But Howard Steals The Show

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Referee Howard Webb leads out both teams 2010/11 Manchester United V Liverpool (3-2) 19/09/10 The Premier League Photo Robin Parker Fotosports International Photo via Newscom

Manchester United 1-0 Liverpool
Sunday, 9th January 2011
FA Cup Third Round

It was supposed to be the day on which King Kenny Dalglish marked his return to the Anfield throne. Instead it was referee Howard Webb who took the opportunity to steal the headlines, on an eventual afternoon during another event filled weekend.

A controversial 1-0 victory for Manchester United ensured that it was the Old Trafford outfit who would progress to the fourth round of this season’s FA Cup. In the process condemning the returning Liverpool legend to a losing start to his second stint in charge.

There were positives for the Reds, and particularly the returning Dalglish, to take in defeat, though. The Scot – returning in his beloved club’s hour of need – will have been pleased with the work rate and commitment of his players. And particularly their response to adversity, having conceded a penalty in the opening minute before seeing captain and stalwart Steven Gerrard dismissed later in the first half.

Webb’s decision to award a very contentious penalty after just 29 seconds of play meant that the feel good factor inspired by Dalglish’s return had disintegrated quicker than it had arrived. Dalglish had been granted little time to contemplate his appointment. Having been confirmed as manager on Saturday morning, flown home early from his holiday on Saturday evening and at Old Trafford by Sunday lunchtime.

You can not expect Dalglish to have had that great an impact so far, beyond the energising effect on a club so shrouded in negativity and despair in recent times. Kenny only introduced himself to the playing squad which he has now inherited on the morning of the game. And any positive impact his arrival will surely herald will come on the training ground and in the dug out during the weeks and months to come.

Yet, merely the presence of a man so beloved by the clubs followers on the touchline will have been enough to inspire some sort of response from a group of players who have performed well below-par far too regularly this season.

The reaction of the fans to the news was certainly emphatic. The large away following backed the team in a vociferous manner unmatched so far this campaign. Whilst the presence of a man who has achieved so much and is held in such high esteem can not fail to demand respect from the players.

Howard Webb ensured that the new regime got off to the worst possible start though. Dalglish had barely taken his seat in the dugout when. Dimitar Berbatov took a stride before going to ground under minimal contact from Daniel Agger, by the touchline. Though, Webb – often not far away from controversy in big matches – awarded the penalty, despite his seemingly poor position to view the incident.

Ryan Giggs drilled the penalty kick beyond Pepe Reina and into the bottom right-hand corner. And Liverpool found themselves in a familiar position within seconds of the kick-off.

Man United did not initially capitalise on their early advantage, though. Instead the Reds responded well. Fernando Torres failed to connect cleanly with his shot from the edge of the area, having received the ball from Dirk Kuyt. Maxi Rodriguez then tested the reflexes of Thomas Kuszczak in the United goal, with a powerfully driven effort. Gerrard also making the ‘keeper work.

The return of Agger evidently adds an extra dimension to the Liverpool defence. Whilst Martin Kelly – who again had to step in at the last minute – was solid once more in a big game. Kelly is doing his claims to a more regular starting berth at right-back no harm at all this season.

Man United were not, as yet, enforcing an authority over the game. Yet, Liverpool were often too laboured on the ball to impose any sustained pressure on the home goalmouth. Moves broke down too readily and Torres was at times isolated up front.

And the Reds probably needed to take advantage during this phase of the game. Because, by the 32nd minute Webb was to make his second big call of the match – this one the pivotal decision which took the game away from Liverpool.

Steven Gerrard Scores 2nd goal Liverpool 2010/11 Manchester United V Liverpool (3-2) 19/09/10 The Premier League Photo Robin Parker Fotosports International Photo via Newscom

Gerrard’s challenge on Michael Carrick in the centre of the pitch was adjudged to have been overly forceful and two-footed by the referee. At another time Gerrard may have got away with a less severe punishment, but this season there has been a noticeable effort by officials to clamp down on similar challenges. There should be no surprise then that Webb was quick to produce the red card and dismiss Liverpool’s skipper for the first time in over four years.

From that point on the sway of the game clearly swung in the favour of the hosts. Jonny Evans struck Reina’s post from a Giggs corner shortly before half-time. In the second period, Javier Hernandez then headed a Darren Fletcher delivery across goal and narrowly wide.

Reina kept the Reds in the game in the closing stages. The Spaniard produced successive desperate saves from Rafael Da Silva, before tipping a Berbatov effort over the bar.

Liverpool had chances of their own. Most notably when a well-placed Fabio Aurelio free-kick forced Kuszczak into a full stretch save, after Torres had been fouled on the edge of the area. Substitute, Ryan Babel, also headed narrowly wide from a Kelly right-wing cross.

But Liverpool’s ten men never looked likely to find the equaliser. Whilst a lack of attacking quality at Dalglish’s disposal on the substitute’s bench was again exposed. Jonjo Shelvey and David N’Gog were also introduced – for an under-performing Raul Meireles and tiring Torres, respectively – but were unable to inspire the required impact.

Dalglish and the rest of the backroom staff have their work cut out if they are to transform the fortunes of this Liverpool team. And, even though there are positives to take away from Old Trafford, there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that there is still a big job ahead.

Too many players have not being performing to the required standard in recent times. They have perhaps been somewhat fortunate that the, firstly then ownership situation, and then the aptitude of the previous manager have hogged the criticism.

However, an element of positivity has undoubtedly now returned to the club. The arrival of Dalglish has galvanised the club, with all now pulling in the same direction. There is hope that the return of

The king could be the catalyst for improved fortunes on the pitch, before the end of this season and beyond.

Man of the Match
DANIEL AGGER
Surely the best centre-half at the club’s disposal. Agger was a composed presence at the back on his return to the starting line-up. But, more importantly, he also provides that extra dimension going forward.

* Photographs in this article are from Man Utd vs Liverpool from earlier this season. Howard Webb refereed that day, too.

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