FOR LIVERPOOL it was not quite as sweet a moment as seven years ago when they denied Manchester United the title, but it was close. To knock their great Lancashire rivals off their stride was enough on a night of thunderous drama.
With 22 minutes remaining United were 2-0 up and seemingly set fair to maintain their march on the treble. Then the bolts arrived with painful regularity. Jamie Redknapp reduced the arrears with a penalty; Denis Irwin was sent off for two bookable offences and will miss the FA Cup final; then with two minutes remaining Paul Ince got an equaliser.
The identity of the scorer of the goal that means Arsenal have a three- point advantage at the top of the Premiership was the final irony. Ince won two championships with United before being sold to Internazionale and has had to withstand furious jibes from his erstwhile supporters since.
"I didn't think we could do it when we were 2-0 down, specially against a team like United," Ince said. "But it showed the great spirit in the team." Did he feel sorry for his former club? "Not really, they've won the title so many times recently."
Alex Ferguson, the United manager, put the blame squarely on David Elleray. "It's a disappointing night for us," he said. "At 2-0 there was no way they could possibly come back. I think the referee handed it to them. It doesn't do our game too much good when you see things like that."
Ferguson was angry, but passions ran high from the start of the evening. In the opening seconds Dwight Yorke dwelt on the ball for a half-second too long and Ince arrived like a flanker taking out an outside-half. That tackle, perfectly legitimate, was an announcement of intent because Liverpool tore at their opponents. At that stage they were the better side but the fact they were inches away from pulling the trigger rather than raining in shots at Peter Schmeichel was a concern for their manager, Gerard Houllier.
It became substantially worse when United took the lead after 21 minutes. A beautifully crafted goal it was, too.
News of Arsenal's opening goal had just filtered through to Anfield and as the home supporters delighted in relaying it to the players, United silenced them with simplicity allied to supreme accuracy. Roy Keane and David Beckham played one-touch at a free-kick on the right wing before the latter feinted to go outside and instead passed inwards to his captain. When Keane delivered a lovely return ball, Beckham had the choice of going near or far post with his pass. The cross, bending and spinning with malicious intent, took the long route where Yorke rose to head emphatically past Brad Friedel from six yards.
Yorke had another header saved by Friedel but that seemed irrelevant when United went 2-0 ahead. Beckham flicked a pass to the left with the outside of his right foot and, as Rigobert Song hesitated, Jesper Blomqvist burst past him. Jamie Carragher stretched to mend the damage but was a fraction too late and caught the Swedish winger in the chest.
Cue mayhem. Blomqvist collapsed, Keane and Ince squared up to each other and Elleray pointed to the spot. Irwin, a cool head amid the noise and the anger, calmly converted the penalty.
United seemed secure but after 68 minutes Dominic Matteo's cross from the left landed at Oyvind Leonhardsen's feet and as he was about to shoot Blomqvist arrived with a tackle. United argued it was fair but Elleray thought otherwise and Redknapp sent Schmeichel the wrong way with the spot-kick.
Liverpool sensed blood and charged forward and it was an attempt to ease the pressure that cost Irwin. The left-back was attempting a counter- attack when the ball went marginally out of play and when he passed to Andy Cole the referee ruled he had kicked the ball away. Having earlier been booked for a late tackle on Steve McManaman, Irwin received the red card this time.
"I don't know how the guy is expected to see the linesman who is 10 yards behind him," Ferguson said. "It's tragic that he'll miss the final."
Down to 10 men, United hung on desperately until David Thompson's through ball gave Karlheinz Riedle a chance and when his attempt was blocked Ince slid in to beat Schmeichel.
"I told you we'd beat them one day - it was nearly tonight," Houllier said. For United it felt like a defeat. Advantage Arsenal.
Liverpool (3-5-1-1): Friedel; Carragher, Staunton (Thompson, 78), Babb; Song (Berger, 57), Redknapp, Ince, Leonhardsen, Matteo; McManaman; Riedle. Substitutes not used: Ferri, Bjornebye, James (gk).
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Stam, Johnsen, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Blomqvist (P Neville, 76); Yorke, Cole (Butt, 76). Substitutes not used: May, Sheringham, Van der Gouw (gk).
Referee: D Elleray (Harrow).
Chelsea celebrate; more reports; results, page 26