Football: Scholes steals the thunder

Manchester United 2 Liverpool 0
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IT WAS raw and rugged and just what Alex Ferguson had demanded from his players. Manchester United, so supine against Arsenal at the weekend, rediscovered their iron at Old Trafford last night, winning the battle of wills with Liverpool and, as a consequence, the match.

Eight bookings - four per side - testified to the commitment on both sides of the Lancashire divide but the more pertinent statistic was the goals, a penalty from Denis Irwin and a thunderous shot from Paul Scholes.

"They responded in the right way after a bad defeat on Sunday," Ferguson said. "It demonstrates the beauty of football that you can recover from a poor performance because there's always another game coming along."

No clash between these shades of red is just another game but a trend is developing. Liverpool felt it was the referee's decisions as much as anything that counted against them but the last time Liverpool won at United was in 1990 , their only success at Old Trafford in their last 12 attempts. That is a damning statistic that cannot be wholly down to officiating.

Henning Berg and Jesper Blomqvist were the first to feel Ferguson's post- Highbury lash, being reduced to substitutes while Liverpool took sanctions for a haphazard defensive display against Charlton on Saturday, leaving out Steve Staunton, Vegard Heggem, Steve Harkness and Robbie Fowler. Only the last, it was understood, had been omitted for fitness reasons.

The changes were ignored by the United supporters, who seized upon three nervous clearances from Brad Friedel to note similarities with the error- prone David James. "Same old Scousers, dodgy keeper," they sang, not knowing how prescient they were being.

After an initial flurry of blood and thunder but no clear-cut chances, United had the first when Ryan Giggs returned a corner back towards its right flank origin after 12 minutes and Roy Keane volleyed a shot across Liverpool's six-yard box.

Friedel dealt with that competently enough, diving to snuff out the threat but that served only to highlight his frailty five minutes later when he made two costly errors.

There was limited power in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's 25-yard shot and any Premiership goalkeeper would expect to save comfortably. Instead Friedel let the ball slip under his body and was fortunate to see it squirm just the safe side of the post.

Lapses like that leave a mark and when David Beckham's corner came across Friedel was tentative with his punch. The ball came down only a few yards away, striking Jason McAteer's arm. Whether it was intentional handball is debatable but the referee pointed to the spot and Irwin converted the penalty, sending the goalkeeper the wrong way.

"We are getting sick to death of getting decisions like that against us here," Roy Evans, the joint Liverpool manager, said. "I'm not saying the ball didn't hit his arm, but in a situation where he's being mauled to death by Scholes it's a diabolical decision."

It was a goal to douse any self-belief yet, to Liverpool's credit, they imposed themselves more after it than they had beforehand. Jamie Redknapp curled a free-kick that forced an inelegant scramble across his line from Schmeichel and Michael Owen's menace became increasingly apparent.

It was in this period that Liverpool's best effort arrived, seconds before the interval. Paul Ince, a centre of attention after Ferguson's reference to him as a "big-time Charlie" this week, whipped in a left-foot shot that flicked Jaap Stam's boot and forced Peter Schmeichel to readjust mid-dive, his reflex action palming the ball to safety.

Liverpool, heartened, continued to dominate possession in the second half but their waves of attacks broke on the excellent Gary Neville and Stam, who produced his most commanding performance since his pounds 10.6m transfer in the summer.

Just once was this central defensive partnership breached, after 68 minutes, when Patrik Berger's shot from the edge of the area was spilled by Schmeichel and Karlheinz Riedle pounced on the rebound. The Liverpool players were furious that an offside flag ruled out the effort, but television evidence proved the linesman correct.

It was Liverpool's last act of defiance because Andy Cole was introduced to United's attack midway through the second half and after 79 minutes he rocketed down the left wing before pulling the ball back. Yorke could not reach it but Scholes did with devastating effect, thundering the ball past Freidel.

"The most important thing is that we have beaten Liverpool," Ferguson said. "I know they drew 1-1 here last season but I think this is a better team. They have a better look about them." So, after this result, do United.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; P Neville, Stam, G Neville, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Scholes (Butt, 87), Giggs; Solskjaer (Cole, 68) Yorke. Substitutes not used: Blomqvist, Berg, Van der Gouw (gk).

Liverpool (4-4-2): Friedel; McAteer, Carragher, Babb, Bjornebye; McManaman, Ince, Redknapp, Berger; Owen, Riedle (Fowler, 74). Substitutes not used: Heggem, Matteo, Leonhardsen, James (gk).

Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).