Football: James hands title to United

Race for the Premiership: Pallister corners the market as Liverpool self-destruct and Arsenal lose the plot
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The Independent Online
Liverpool 1 Manchester Utd 3

Barnes 19 Pallister 13, 42, Cole 63

Half-time: 1-2 Referee: G Poll Attendance: 40,892

The European Cup may yet intrude, and four games in the last nine days of the season could still catch up with them. It would not be a smart way to bet, however. With a foreceful display of the graft and craft it takes to be champions, qualities which set them apart in the English game, Manchester United moved ruthlessly, relentlessly closer to their fourth Premiership title in five seasons at Anfield yesterday. Liverpool's first championship in eight ebbs away.

It was a case for United of heads you win as Liverpool's tails were left between their legs. Gary Pallister's two headed goals from corners and Andy Cole's simple nod home, after David James again betrayed his and his team's uncertainty in the face of potent opponents, were emphatic examples of superiority. An unmarked John Barnes's own headed response was United's only aberration.

"A massive step," said the United manager, Alex Ferguson, of his team's morning glory. "You have got to earn the right to be champions and I think we have come to the right place to prove it." Indeed, Anfield with its record 18 titles knows all about them. Or rather once did. In the eclipsing of their great North-west rivals, who once over- shadowed them, will come renewed satisfaction for United. Arsenal's draw later in the day will have raised spirits even higher.

The image of United is of snarling champions, etched on the face of Roy Keane and seen even in the tackling of David Beckham these days. In reality, it is mostly a combination of aggression and determination which enables them to achieve as well as please.

The modern Liverpool do possess the capacity to delight yet lack the inner strength to go the extra mile. What was the main difference between the teams, Roy Evans was asked: "The goals we gave away," replied the Liverpool manager. "I can't say we had tired legs or were behind them in open play." If the affable Evans genuinely believes as much, self-delusion is not far behind.

From the outset, United were swifter and sharper, making light of absentees such as David May, Ryan Giggs and Denis Irwin. In the first minute, Cole headed down Beckham's cross for Eric Cantona to volley just over. Soon James had to dash out to intervene as Cole raced on to Cantona's through pass.

The early lead was thus no surprise. It may not have been a corner, Cole seeming to get in ahead of Wright, but Beckham's excellent delivery from the kick found Gary Pallister nipping in ahead of Mark Wright to head powerfully home.

It might have been two, moments later, when Cole stole between the hesitant James and Bjorn Tore Kvarme - after an impressive start at Liverpool this was welcome-to-the-Premiership day - but he could not direct his half- volley goalwards.

Steve McManaman sliced an early Liverpool chance wide but it had been a rare red wave amid United's white tide. Now stung, they responded to Anfield's throaty anger with an equaliser amid a moment of United complacency; Barnes left alone to head down, Peter Schmeichel able only to touch it into the net after McManaman crossed from Jason McAteer's short corner.

When Cantona hit a shot over the bar soon afterwards it served only to illustrate how much United have developed, no longer in need of his goals and constant contribution. They had an anxious moment, when Robbie Fowler's weaker right-foot shot dribbled across goal, but the lead they regained just before half-time was deserved enough. Liverpool had not absorbed the first lesson. James did well to push over Ronny Johnsen's header from a corner but as Beckham prepared to take another - this time from the left - Pallister, Roy Keane, Johnsen and Cantona lined up again on the edge of the penalty area. The last three fanned out as advance guards and Pallister arrived behind them to head firmly home once more. It was the first time in the tall defender's career that he had scored twice in a match.

After such a breathless, error-strewn but ever entertaining first half, punctuated by penalty appeals, too, when Johnsen tangled with Fowler and Kvarme raised an arm to Cantona's flick, the second could scarcely live up to it, though it remained absorbing. Evans introduced Stan Collymore, then Patrik Berger, to give belated support to the isolated Fowler, ending his league season before suspension on a subdued note, but United's defence stood resolute.

Unlike Liverpool's. Gary Neville's high ball from the right found James flapping in recent familiar fashion and Cole had a simple opportunity to guide in a header. Home heads dropped. The sweet silver sound became the sound of silence.

It was only interrupted for polite applause at Barnes's substitution; perhaps a sad sign of things to come. "About six months too late," came a crueller, angrier voice. Long before the end, the exits were crammed. The departing almost missed Cole equalling United's best ever win at Anfield, in 1969-70, but he shot hastily wide with only James to beat.

"That has put us behind the eight ball," Evans accepted, though still making the right noises about not throwing in the towel. Ferguson would take nothing for granted, he said, but added: "This club know how hard it is to win a championship. If we win it, I think we will be good champions." Now Liverpool know how hard it is. And how hard a team have to be.

Top of Premiership

P W D L F A Pts

Man Utd 34 20 9 5 69 39 69

Arsenal 35 18 10 7 58 29 64

Liverpool 35 18 10 7 58 33 64

Remaining fixtures

Manchester United: 3 May Leicester (A); 6 May Middlesbrough (H); 8 May Newcastle (H); 11 May West Ham (H).

Liverpool: 3 May Tottenham (H); 6 May Wimbledon (A); 11 May Sheffield Wednesday (A).

Arsenal: 21 Apr Coventry (A); 3 May Newcastle (H); 11 May Derby (A).