Football: Liverpool lack firepower

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The Independent Online
The Manchester United fans looked nervous. There were just 10 minutes to kick-off and they were still outside Old Trafford. "Maybe he won't turn up," said one of the three, "he was on the beer last night."

Their relief - if their hungover friend dared brave the roars of the Premiership's biggest crowd yet - would have been shortlived. Once inside, they would have spent Saturday's match in a state of high anxiety.

Liverpool so dominated the game they secured 57 per cent of possession. United can rarely have been so outplayed at home in the 1990s. Yet they won, 1-0, and, perversely, the longer the match went on the less one thought they would lose it.

United won because they took one of their few chances - a bare half- chance, lashed in by David Beckham after neat work by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer - and because Liverpool, again, squandered their control. Last year's fault resurfaced when they least wished it.

Robbie Fowler's absence, with injury, offered an excuse, albeit a minimal one. The scampering scally has only shown glimpses of his instinct for goalscoring this season.

The paradox was that Liverpool's problems stemmed from United's weakness. The champions had approached the match in negative mood, preoccupied by Wednesday's Champions' League tie against Fenerbahce in Istanbul. They thus rested minor injury victims Gary Pallister and Ryan Giggs (who has just signed a new five-year-contract), and viewed the game as one they could not afford to lose, rather than one they had to win.

Alex Ferguson, the United manager, admitted afterwards that they believe they can win the League in the spring, as long as they stay in relative touch during the autumn and winter.

Thus Denis Irwin was detailed to mark Steve McManaman and Gary Neville to step into Patrik Berger's space, while Jordi Cruyff spent most of his game marking Jason McAteer. And once they went ahead, after 23 minutes, United became even more defensive.

Inadvertently, the tactic worked, just as a similar, more intended plan had succeeded in the FA Cup final. Liverpool had space to play in midfield, but not around the box. They passed and probed, passed, probed and passed, with John Barnes always the fulcrum. However, Stan Collymore was subdued and Berger and McManaman profligate.

The concentration of possession also restricted Liverpool's flair for the counter-attack. Dominic Matteo played well but only once brought the ball from defence, though this was partly because, with United playing one up, it often fell to him to be the marker.

There were fluffed snap-shots and hopeful long pots, but it was only in the closing stages that Peter Schmeichel was busy. Even then the only time he had to play near his own exceptional standards was to save a misdirected header from Neville. Headers from Barnes and Berger, and shots from Collymore and Berger only required the customary sharp anticipation and a suffocating spread of his frame.

"They don't penetrate," said Ferguson.

"We had six or seven clear chances," responded an unusually tetchy Roy Evans, "if that's not penetration, what is?"

Liverpool did create chances, but not the number of clear ones their possession demanded. For that United could thank David May and Ronny Johnsen.

One of those defenders will be on the bench in Istanbul, unless United play three at the back. That is unlikely but, given Ferguson's penchant for tactical tinkering overseas, not inconceivable. A reversion to their usual domestic shape seems more probable, with any changes being in approach rather than formation.

Roy Keane will be missed, as he was on Saturday morning, but Nicky Butt and Beckham are still an impressive central pair. Butt worked tirelessly while Beckham's vision compensated for another limp performance from Cantona. When, after 20 minutes his brother, Joel, was spotted in the stands the first thought was that is was Eric himself: he did not seem to be on the pitch. Perhaps he, too, was saving himself for Europe. He is due a good Champions' League game.

Liverpool, meanwhile, go to Switzerland. They need an away goal, otherwise Sion will defend deep at Anfield and Liverpool will face the same problems they could not solve on Saturday.

"If we continue to play like that we have a great chance to succeed," Evans insisted. Yet Liverpool have now commanded the last three Old Trafford encounters but not won there since 1990.

That was the last year they were champions. If they fail again this season it will be Liverpool's longest spell without a title since Bill Shankly arrived, more than 30 years ago. Fail in Europe as well and The Kop may begin to mutter. Liverpool's efforts were warmly applauded by the vocal travelling support on Saturday but, come May, only the scoreline will matter.

Goal: Beckham (23) 1-0.

Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Schmeichel; G Neville, May, Johnsen, Irwin; Poborsky (Scholes, 55), Butt, Beckham, Cruyff; Cantona; Solskjaer (Giggs, 80). Substitutes not used: McClair, Thornley, Van der Gouw (gk).

Liverpool (3-4-2-1): James; Scales (Redknapp, 80), Matteo, Babb; McAteer, Thomas, Barnes, Bjornebye; McManaman, Berger; Collymore. Substitutes not used: Ruddock, L Jones, Kennedy, Warner (gk).

Referee: D Elleray (Harrow).

Bookings: Manchester United: May. Liverpool: Babb, Thomas.

Man of the match: May.

Attendance: 55,128.

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