FOOTBALL: Double trouble from Fowler

Liverpool 2 Manchester United 0
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For Liverpool, the next best thing to winning is doing damage to Manchester United and yesterday they inflicted serious harm. They did not just beat their rivals from up the M62, they gave them a thorough thrashing. The scoreline was a mockery.

Robbie Fowler got both goals, but the true margin of superiority was far more substantial. Stan Collymore alone could have got six and but for Peter Schmeichel would probably have got them. United, meanwhile, were terrible.

They have now gone four matches without a win and their challenge to Newcastle United at the top of the Premiership has become flaccid. The margin between the two teams is seven points and United's next two fixtures are hardly in their favour either: away to Leeds and at home to Newcastle.

Indeed, it was difficult to remember a United performance that was so tepid. Alex Ferguson, the United manager, dropped his leading scorer, Paul Scholes, to bolster his midfield, but he might as well not have bothered, because the centre of the field and the left flank belonged resolutely with Liverpool.

Until the visitors abandoned caution and charged forward in a forlorn attempt to get an equaliser, it was difficult to remember a shot. Their afternoon was summed up by their pounds 7m striker, Andy Cole, who lacked touch and support and was substituted after 52 minutes.

"In the first half we were dreadful," Ferguson said. "We improved in terms of our tempo after the interval, but we never got to grips in midfield. It's difficult to remember a worse performance. When Manchester United play Liverpool, the one thing I expect from my players is that they fight, fight, fight. We were lifeless. We barely laid a tackle on their players."

There are times when Liverpool look as though they could not score against a team of training cones. It was their profligacy that kept United in a match that should have been sewn up within 25 minutes. The fact they did not was down to Schmeichel and David May, who occasionally looked as though he was playing alone against the swarms of red shirts.

In that opening period, Schmeichel made three outstanding saves from Collymore. The first came after 15 minutes when he dived to his right to stop Collymore's shot from 12 yards, but within the next 10 minutes he twice had to charge off his line.

These opportunities were bookended by chances for Fowler, who headed wide from Rob Jones's cross after 10 minutes and by Jones, who side-footed over the bar after Jason McAteer's pass had arced over the United rearguard to the far post.

With half-time approaching, United appeared to have got away with it. "If we could have gone in at the interval at 0-0, I might have been able to do something about," Ferguson said. "But the one piece of luck that Liverpool had in the first half got them a goal."

That fortune manifested itself in Schmeichel being unsighted as Fowler took a free-kick 25 yards out after Lee Sharpe brought down John Barnes. The Liverpool striker floated a shot with his left foot and although the ball passed not more than two yards from the United goalkeeper's right hand, he did not move.

United could only improve after the interval and in some respects they did, although not by so much that Collymore did not have three more chances to go one on one against Schmeichel.

His best effort came after 63 minutes when he used Steve Bruce like a fulcrum to lever himself round the United centre back and thump a shot against the bar. His best chance, however, came after 78 minutes when Barnes gave him an opportunity with the angle in his favour for the first time. From a central position, he was still blocked by Schmeichel.

United, throwing Denis Irwin forward as a right winger, might have got an equaliser. Eric Cantona had a volley superbly saved by David James after 70 minutes and the Liverpool goalkeeper was also involved in a scrambled clearance from Ryan Giggs that bounced by a post and rolled past.

The gaps in United's defence were becoming larger, however, and four minutes from time Liverpool finally profited from them. Steve McManaman glided in from the left and found Fowler, who dummied to shoot, walked round David Beckham and chipped the ball beyond Schmeichel. It was an excellent goal and nowhere was it appreciated more than on Tyneside.

Liverpool (5-3-2): James; McAteer, Wright, Scales, Harkness, Jones; McManaman, Thomas, Barnes; Collymore, Fowler. Substitutes not used: Kennedy, Matteo, Warner (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Schmeichel; G Neville, Bruce, May, Irwin; Beckham, McClair, Sharpe, Giggs; Cantona; Cole (Scholes, 52). Substitutes not used: P Neville, Pilkington (gk).

Referee: G Poll (Tring).

Bookings: Liverpool: McManaman, Fowler. Manchester United: Sharpe, McClair.

Man of the match: Thomas.

Attendance: 40,546.