Beckham's high noon
Manchester United 1 Beckham 23 Liverpool 0 Attendance: 55,128
A goal by the boy David Beckham, admirably performing a man's job, settled another titanic North-west confrontation - if one less intense than those of the past, thanks to a morning kick-off and the visitors' patient style - thus maintaining United's unbeaten record and ending Liverpool's. If Liverpool are to usurp United as champions, they cannot afford to be as wasteful as this.
"If you don't put the ball in the net, you don't win games," lamented the Liverpool manager, Roy Evans, not for the first time. "We don't go away with our heads down, though, but with the knowledge that if we continue to play like that we'll succeed."
Perhaps, but it all recalled Liverpool's performance at St James' Park last season, during a nightmare November, when a similar performance against Newcastle also went unrewarded. How they respond to their first setback of this season, by the same score against the same team who beat them in the FA Cup final of last season, will be significant.
To some, Liverpool's passing seems to recall at times the words of one of Mozart's critics in the film Amadeus: "Rather too many notes for my liking." The United manager Alex Ferguson even opined that "they don't penetrate you that much". But as Evans retorted: "You can't say we don't penetrate when we've created six or seven good chances.''
"It's not often you win a game and are displeased," Ferguson added. What particularly disturbed him was the way his full- backs Gary Neville and Denis Irwin retreated in the second half rather than pushing forward, a tactic the manager has devised for European competition, which this week sees United continue their Champions' League campaign against Fenerbahce.
It enabled Liverpool to build painstakingly, quell the record Premiership crowd, and await openings. Stan Collymore, deputising for the injured Robbie Fowler, missed a gilt-edged one, as did Patrik Berger five minutes from time.
United carried out Ferguson's instructions in the first half, however, as Liverpool were harried into errors. It was all the more admirable as they were without Gary Pallister, who had strained his back playing for England, and Ryan Giggs, consigned to the bench after injury. These on top of the longer-term casualties Roy Keane and Andy Cole. At least Giggs was able to play 10 minutes of a new five-year contract.
When Phil Babb's uncertain touch let in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, David James rushed out to divert the ball with his head, replays proving referee David Elleray right in taking no punitive action. Some of his leniency later, though, was less justified.
United's goal arrived midway though the first half, when Dominic Matteo allowed Solskjaer goal-side of him under Neville's high ball, which broke for Beckham to drive home low off the inside of a post from 20 yards.
Thereafter, Liverpool assumed a dominance by adhering to their principles, John Barnes retaining his nudge-and-move composure. Before half-time Steve McManaman, giving one of his maddening performances when his toes twinkle but his eyes look down, might have had an equaliser but twice drove across goal when in space; after the break a whole host of players should certainly have done so.
In a 10-minute spell, Barnes, Michael Thomas and Berger all had room for headers on goal but placed them too close to Peter Schmeichel, who also tipped over Neville's headed deflection.
It seemed that United, for whom the misfiring of Wembley goalscorer Eric Cantona was now typical, must surely wilt. In David May, who produced some timely tackles, and the formidable barrier of Schmeichel, they found saviours, though. Collymore turned neatly on Jason McAteer's cross but the Dane was quickly down to save from close range and soon after the goalkeeper dashed out to thwart Berger after McManaman, now finding the space between the opposition's midfield and defence, had slipped him through.
"The only thing that spoilt our performance was not putting the ball in the net," Evans said. The word "only" does not convey the magnitude of that omission, however, one that Liverpool will need to rectify if last season's careless empty-handedness is not to be repeated.
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