Football: Faint hearts and haunted looks

Stan Hey sees sorry Liverpool surrender to a team showing more hunger
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The Independent Online
It started with a roar but by the end of what the Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson hailed as "a very significant result for us", Anfield was as quiet as a Sunday morning as Liverpool were left to face another season ending in profound anti-climax.

Despite the early defiance of the Kop, who were in splendid flag-waving order before the game, there was no disguising Liverpool's acceptance that the transfer of football power to United has been completed. The process has, in truth, been under way for at least four years and yesterday's defeat merely emphasised that the gulf between the teams is much wider than the points gap suggests.

Indeed all the worst fears of Liverpool's fans came true in the game - a gross goalkeeping error by David James, a slow-moving and ineffectual midfield, and no effective support for Robbie Fowler, the team's one unimpeachable star.

Fowler, whose last act of this his last Premiership game of the season was to toss his boots into the Kop, only twice got into the sort of position in which his skills could offer salvation, but first his weaker right foot and then Peter Schmeichel denied him. With Fowler blunted, it was really a case of how United asserted their advantage. The first two minutes of play, when they kept the ball almost exclusively to themselves and pressed Liverpool into their own half, was a vivid assertion of United's psychological superiority over Liverpool, almost as choreographed as a gang-war fight for prized territory.

United's first two goals from Gary Pallister were a triumph of physical mastery. The wedge of four United players that formed for the crucial corner kicks became the four horsemen of the Apocalypse as far as the home side were concerned, so punishing was their contribution.

Bad defending it may have been to let Pallister in twice in almost identical circumstances, but what struck you more was the tactical ineptitude and the faint-heartedness that seemed to underlie it. The fact that John Barnes claimed Liverpool's consolation in similar circumstances said more about the risk of United's complacency, which Alex Ferguson will be at pains to extinguish over the next few weeks.

"We have games against teams fighting off relegation and games against teams fighting for a place in Europe," Ferguson said afterwards. "So we won't be taking anything for granted." It would not be a surprise if he banned his players from reading today's papers, which will be filled with the inevitability of another United triumph in the Premiership era. But, really, his worries are surely unfounded, for this United team ooze with the professional hunger for winning that was once Liverpool's dominant ethic. The fact that they did not even need to be at their best yesterday spoke volumes of Liverpool's abiding discomfort.

From the moment James, an athlete sapped of all professional confidence, gifted Andy Cole the third goal, the atmosphere around Anfield dissipated into one of sullen recognition of the continuing inadequacies of the squad and its tactics.

"We won't say it's all over yet," a haunted-looking Roy Evans said afterwards, but the quietness of his voice seemed to emphasise how faint that hope is. Those fans who began streaming out of the ground with fully five minutes left were an eloquent image of how much Liverpool have surrendered to Manchester over the past few years. But perhaps the most wounding emotion is that Liverpool supporters must now know how United's fans felt during Manchester's own barren years of the 1970s and 80s.

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