Manchester United. .3
EARLY days these may be, but it will be a lucky man who sees a better match in 1994. Liverpool are not the force they were, but the old enemy continue to bring out the best in them, and after going 3-0 down they produced a fightback reminiscent of Anfield's halcyon years.
Steve Bruce, with a plunging header, then Ryan Giggs and Dennis Irwin with spectacular shots, seemed to have won it for United before the game was half an hour old, but two goals from Nigel Clough, at his very best, and a dramatic nod from Neil Ruddock's productive forehead left the champions grateful for their fifth draw in eight games.
On the slide? Hardly, with a lead of 13 points, but Blackburn Rovers will take encouragement from each of the three goals put past Peter Schmeichel, and cannot be discounted if they win their two matches in hand.
Liverpool's tumble from the pinnacle has deprived this fixture of its traditional lustre, but the atmosphere was the usual assault on the senses. The Kop greeted United with a huge banner reminding them that while 'form is temporary, class is permanent'. It was quickly stashed when the best team in the country produced a withering start, but was flattering again by the end.
Just nine pell-mell minutes had elapsed when United took the lead, Eric Cantona crossing from the left for Bruce to head home from six yards at the far post.
'There's only one Graeme Souness' saluted the goal. Encouragement? Hardly. The gleeful choruses came from the Mancunian Reds.
It would have been the Kop doing the taunting had not Robbie Fowler spurned a couple of early chances. United are too good to let off the hook and the young man's profligacy was punishment when United struck twice in three minutes.
The first was Giggs at his best. Jamie Redknapp played Mark Wright into trouble with a risky back pass, and threw up his hands in despair when the defender's lack of control let in the most gifted forward in the domestic game. What followed was sheer class, Giggs looking up, 20 yards out, and lifting the ball over Bruce Grobbelaar.
After 24 minutes it was 3-0, and Liverpool were in danger of a hiding. Again poor defending did them no favours, Ruddock's senseless foul on Roy Keane enabling Irwin to score with a 25- yard free-kick, curled into Grobbelaar's top-right corner.
Liverpool were wounded, but enough of the old spirit remained for them to refuse to lie down, and Clough applied the resuscitator after 25 minutes with a 25-yard screamer.
Redknapp further revived them with a volley which was too close for Schmeichel's comfort, and by half-time they were up and running again at 3-2. United's central defence melted before Wright's determined surge, and Clough drove in his second from the edge of the 18-yard line.
Giggs should have further embellished a coruscating first-half, but missed what amounted to an open goal after Grobbelaar had parried a shot from Brian McClair.
The pace was unremitting; English football at its very best. Shots from Giggs and Keane met with impressive evidence of Grobbelaar's enduring athleticism - Schmeichel responding with a top-notch save of his own at Redknapp's expense.
Hammer and tongs, tit for tat. The parity Liverpool's persistence merited came after 79 minutes. Stig Bjornebye, who had been on for a matter of seconds, crossed from the left for Ruddock to score with a towering header from eight yards.
Alex Ferguson was 'bloody raging' about losing a three- goal lead for the first time in his career, leaving Souness to come up with a more fitting verdict. 'A great game of football,' the Liverpool manager said.
And so say all of us.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Grobbelaar; Jones, Wright, Ruddock, Dicks; McManaman (Bjornebye, 78), Redknapp, Clough, Barnes; Fowler, Rush. Substitutes not used: James (gk), Nicol.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Kanchelskis, Keane, Ince, McClair; Giggs, Cantona. Substitutes not used: Sealey (gk), Robson, Ferguson.
Referee: P Don (Middlesex).
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