Football: Anfield painted in fresh colours

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Liverpool. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

Manchester United. . . . . . . . . . . . . .2

THE man selling hot dogs in Stanley Park on Saturday laid down three conditions for happiness: we win today, we win the derby, we stay up. The first went down at 5.47 that afternoon. The second, Everton's visit on 20 March, promises to be the most dramatic Merseyside dogfight for a quarter- century, and could conceivably decide the third - who goes down?

Oldham and Middlesbrough may be doomed already, but Liverpool did enough on this chill grey afternoon to convince even the hot-dog man that they have the resources and spirit to survive. In what was perhaps the most exciting match of the season, nerve- tingling almost from first to last whistle, technically flawed and made the more dramatic by errors, United won because their mistakes were fewer.

Alex Ferguson fielded the side that lost to Sheffield United in the FA Cup but with Lee Sharpe and Brian McClair playing deeper as a picket line for their back four. Ferguson might have been tempted to play Bryan Robson, if he had been match fit, but the manager clearly feels it is not yet time to bolt the door. For the moment it is up, away and at them.

Consequently United are currently playing the most imaginative and colourful football seen in England since Howard Kendall's Everton champions. Cosmopolitan football lovers should not miss them; we are seeing history in the making. As in their last two League matches, they cut loose in the last quarter and could have won by a considerable margin.

Liverpool's effort turned on the injury to Paul Stewart, just before the interval. They began well, watching Paul Parker clear against his own crossbar, and forcing Peter Schmeichel into a save Ferguson described afterwards as 'incredible'. Liverpool's midfield, with the combative Stewart at centre, had the edge.

Stewart suffered his third pulled hamstring of the season in tracking Ryan Giggs and, left hobbling, played Mark Hughes onside for the first goal.

'Prove I'm wrong,' Graeme Souness told the deposed Ian Rush when he substituted him for Stewart. Although Rush managed an extraordinary equaliser and forced Schemichel into another brilliant parry ('I didn't see it clearly,' Ferguson said, 'I'd fainted.') Liverpool from then on were always trying to catch up.

David James's one positional error brought United the winner via McClair although Hughes could have had two or three more and Andrei Kanchelskis hit a post. The man of the match was Steve Nicol, who gave an uncanny exhibition of positional play from central defence and speed on the turn when pulled to the flank, all the time keeping an eye on McClair's surges.

The one cloud on a magnificent match was the vicious rivalry expressed by a minority on both sides. The Kop no linger greets a visiting goalkeeper with applause, just hatred expressed in jabbing fingers. United's cooler heads eventually managed to keep their yobs quiet in the minute's silence for Tony Bland. This was too big an occasion for tiny minds.

Goals: Hughes (42) 0-1; Rush (50) 1-1; McClair (57) 1-2.

Liverpool: James; Redknapp, Jones, Nicol, Wright, Bjornebye, McManaman, Hutchison, Walters (Burrows, 78), Barnes, Stewart (Rush, 44). Substitute not used: Hooper (gk).

Manchester United: Schmeichel; Parker, Irwin, Bruce, Sharpe, Pallister, Kanchelskis, Ince, McClair, Hughes, Giggs. Substitutes not used: Dublin, Phelan, Sealey (gk).

Referee: R Milford (Bristol).