Football: United's flying start is at a cost

Liverpool 2 Manchester United 3
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The Independent Online
THERE ARE some things you can take for granted on a trip to Anfield. The PA system will be too loud, the singing of "You'll Never Walk Alone" will never fail to stir and the pitch will be so green it will startle. Oh, and Liverpool's back four are likely to do something stupid.

You would think that enough is going for Manchester United as they are six points clear of the Premiership - albeit having played more games - but the home team were insistent in their present-giving. Ball in the air? Be my guest. And if you cannot score yourself, well, let me.

It is a new-look Liverpool, but Gerard Houllier has kept a link with the past by constructing a team who, on Saturday, were as aerially fallible as ostriches. The 6ft 3in Sami Hyypia was magnificent, but by-pass him and the rest were close to clueless, all three United goals coming from headers.

That Jamie Carragher put two into his own net underlined the sense of disarray. But for that, Liverpool would have secured a victory that would have had heavy resonance for the rest of their season. However, as Houllier pointed out, you cannot expect to score four goals against the European champions.

"They have beaten Arsenal, Leeds and ourselves," the Liverpool manager said. "We have to hope the Champions' League tires them out a bit." Paradoxically, it is the other way round.

United have surrendered only two points domestically in what has been their best start to a season under Sir Alex Ferguson but it is at a cost, and they will begin their defence of the European Cup against Croatia Zagreb tomorrow night with a severely understrength team.

The side that won on Saturday was supposed to be threadbare, but subtract Massimo Taibi, Mickael Silvestre, Nicky Butt and Ronnie Wallwork from those who played at Anfield and you get an idea of the choice spread rather thinly in front of their manager.

"I've got real problems," Ferguson said, and while Raimond van der Gouw or Mark Bosnich will be the goalkeeping solution and Michael Clegg will play at right-back, there are still only three senior midfield players available and one of those, David Beckham, has a groin injury.

"Maybe I'll play three strikers," Ferguson said as he mulled over his options. "Croatia Zagreb have a lot of quality. It's important in that type of game that we get a good start."

A repetition of Saturday's start would be more than welcome. Anfield crackled with anticipation yet even as the Kop were relishing the prospect of adding United to the scalp of Arsenal the home defence was disintegrating. A limp Patrik Berger was swept off the ball by Nicky Butt, Dwight Yorke passed to the flank and Ryan Giggs' cross was headed into his own net by Carragher.

That goal had come from the left and Liverpool's way of compensation was to concentrate there at the expense of the other flank, and for a half Beckham had a ridiculous amount of freedom. Twice desperate tackles stopped his flow and on each occasion a goal stemmed from it, Andy Cole getting the first, the unfortunate Carragher being credited with the other after Henning Berg had been allowed a free header.

In between Hyypia had scored after United's new Italian goalkeeper Taibi missed Jamie Redknapp's free-kick by a matter of feet, and when Berger got the best goal of the game in the 69th minute after a delightful pass from Dominic Matteo Liverpool could see a point dangling in front of them, particularly when Cole got sent off for tangling with Rigobert Song to earn a second booking.

They would have got it, too, but for Taibi, who made up for his earlier error to earn Ferguson's accolade as the man of the match. "On his home debut against Leeds Peter Schmeichel missed a ball by about three yards and went on to be a great goalkeeper for us," the United manager remembered. "Massimo redeemed himself with three excellent saves."

He also had encouraging words for his other new signing Silvestre, whose distribution was less than perfect but whose defending was hugely impressive. "It was a great debut," Ferguson said. "It's not easy coming to Anfield, it's an atmosphere that tests anyone, and he did well."

Which is more than can be said for the new walkie-talkie system between the officials. In the first half two blatant penalties were missed when Nicky Butt handled and then David Thompson pulled Giggs' shirt, yet three pairs of eyes aided by electronic communication could not see what the rest of Anfield had noticed.

There was also collective official blindness for Beckham's disgraceful late stamp on Redknapp which ought to have reduced United to nine men. He is a marvellous player - a 70- yard pass that freed Giggs was sublime - but the idiocy that led to his World Cup downfall has not been left behind and there are signs he is becoming more petulant this season rather than less. It is time for Ferguson to have a quiet word.

Goals: Carragher og (3) 0-1; Cole (17) 0-2; Hyypia (22) 1-2; Carragher og (43) 1-3; Berger (68) 2-3.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Westerveld; Song, Carragher, Hyypia, Matteo; Thompson (Smicer, h-t), Gerrard (Heggem, 63), Redknapp, Berger; Camara (Owen, 63), Fowler. Substitutes not used: Staunton, Friedel (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-2): Taibi; P Neville (Clegg, 83), Berg, Stam, Silvestre; Beckham, Butt (Wallwork, 39), Scholes, Giggs; Yorke, Cole. Substitutes not used: Sheringham, Solskjaer, Van der Gouw (gk).

Referee: G Barber (Kingston). Bookings: Liverpool: Song, Redknapp, Camara; United: Beckham, P Neville. Sending-off: United: Cole.

Man of the match: Stam.

Attendance: 44,929.