Football: United's togetherness the essence of success

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The Independent Online
Liverpool 1 Manchester United 3

It was only a ripple of applause but it had the impact of a thunderclap. For 20 minutes the north end of Anfield's Main Stand had been taunted by the celebratory chants of the away support to their left. Now, their torment ended by the final whistle, they responded by recognising Manchester United's quality.

In times past, Liverpool supporters were recognised for their generosity of spirit - but in those days they were winning. It is hard to be generous when suffering from envious poverty and the current crowd are more likely to condemn their own team than acclaim others but, on Saturday, a significant number made an exception. Almost as telling was the relative absence of boos for their own side from the rest of the ground. As Roy Evans said later, out of honesty rather than expiation, "you have to give credit to the opposition - they are an excellent team."

Evans is not alone in believing that the current United side is the best of the Ferguson era and, though he would not compare them to the great Liverpool sides - "I will always be biased" - he recognised similar qualities.

"They believe they are going to win games and have the confidence that springs from that," he said. "Everything is very simple, they work hard for each other and work well as a team. That is the essence of all the great teams I have known here.

"This team has a great chance to be successful in Europe - their other teams that won the championship in recent years haven't quite been equipped to do that."

United did everything together - even when they conceded a penalty, Michael Owen was crunched simultaneously by Nicky Butt and Phil Neville. David Beckham, linking the play, closing people down, scoring a marvellous goal, symbolised their combination of poise and graft. No spice boy this, nor his team-mates - can anyone recall one of Alex Ferguson's players wearing coloured boots as, in the recent past, John Barnes, Stan Collymore and Michael Thomas have for Liverpool?

There are signs that Evans is getting Liverpool's egos under control - though signing Paul Ince probably has not helped - but more time is needed. "They are a young side," said Ferguson of Liverpool, and, although United are perceived as young, he was right. United had four players under the age of 23 on Saturday, but experience ran through their spine (Peter Schmeichel-Gary Pallister-Ronnie Johnsen-Teddy Sheringham, all 28 or over) and their average age was 26. Liverpool, with two teenagers and no one over 27, averaged 24.

"It hurts to lose to them even more than losing to Everton," Evans said, "because they are major rivals. Fergie's done a fantastic job. He had a lean spell before he was successful, he nearly went - so people say - but they stuck with him and he stuck at it."

Was this a plea to his own board, or a salutary reminder? Either way, there was another example on show of the virtue of patience: Andy Cole, who is rapidly emerging as the most likely understudy to Alan Shearer.

He is unfortunate that England do not play again until February but, if he is still in this form it will be impossible not to choose him. This is especially so given his burgeoning understanding with Sheringham who, once again, is drawing the best from a partner. "Teddy is a great footballer," Evans said. "He plays football with his brains and he is always going to cause problems. Cole's work-rate was fantastic; add the goals he scored and that's even better."

With Eric Cantona's continual exasperation now longer draining Cole's confidence, and a run of goals feeding it, he is once again the arch predator. His brace took his season's tally to 15 and he has made a few as well. Ten of them have been in the Premiership and he could become only the second Manchester United player since George Best to score 20 League goals in a season (the other was Brian McClair in 1987-88).

Cole's pace has always been electric, but his awareness is much improved and he now rarely wastes a ball, instead using his upper body strength and mobility to shield it until a pass, or chance, appears.

For Cole on Saturday that came five minutes in the second period. Until then he had looked sharp but lacked an opportunity despite United producing the more composed football of a frantic match. Then he stole the ball from the dithering Bjorn Tore Kvarme, cut inside Dominic Matteo, and drilled a shot past David James.

United were in command but then came the penalty, converted by Fowler, and for 10 minutes, Liverpool looked capable of winning. The image was illusory. Sheringham flicked a ball into the path of Cole, who was bundled over by Jamie Carragher. Beckham put the free-kick in off the underside of the bar.

It was bad enough that neither Cole nor Sheringham were picked up in that move but what followed was unforgivable. With three Liverpool players marking space - and Patrick Berger in no-man's land - Cole, incredibly, was left unattended in the six-yard-box at a corner. Sheringham flicked on and Cole tapped in.

The game was over, but Cole had not finishing punishing. Hours later those Spurs' fans brave enough to watch Match of the Day were treated, before viewing their slaughter by Chelsea, to this home truth. Asked about Sheringham, Cole said: "He's working really hard since he came to Manchester United. I think he's realised it is a different ball game to Tottenham. Everyone works 100 per cent". Ouch.

Finally, a word about the kick-off time: 11.15 on Saturday morning. This is even more ludicrous than Monday night matches and, loath as I am to agree with David Mellor, it really is about time the spectators were given better consideration.

This may have been a relatively local derby, but both teams have national appeal and the coaches were rolling on to the motorways from Falmouth to Carlisle from the early hours of the morning. It was dark when they left, dark when they returned.

The cause was a combination of Sky TV's desire to broadcast the game, United's reluctance to play on Sunday or Monday before their midweek trip to Turin, and the local police's refusal to sanction a Saturday evening kick-off for security and traffic considerations. All good reasons in themselves, but combined they make another fixture which is difficult to reach and return from by public transport.

This fixture is an obvious one for the cameras; is it really so difficult to programme the computer to ensure that such games are not scheduled before a European week? As it is, we have Manchester United v Arsenal, and Chelsea v Manchester United among future Saturday morning matches already.

Goals: Cole (51) 0-1; Fowler (pen, 60) 1-1; Beckham (69) 1-2; Cole (74) 1-3.

Liverpool (4-4-2): James; McAteer, Matteo, Kvarme (Berger, 60), Bjornebye (Riedle, 72); McManaman, Redknapp, Carragher, Leonhardsen; Owen, Fowler. Substitutes not used: Babb, Harkness, Neilsen (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Berg, Pallister, P Neville; Beckham, Johnsen, Butt, Giggs; Cole, Sheringham. Substitutes not used: Solskjaer, van der Gouw (gk), Mulryne, Poborsky, McClair.

Referee: D Elleray (Harrow).

Bookings: Liverpool: Carragher, Redknapp. Manchester United: Johnsen, Butt.

Man of the match: Beckham.

Attendance: 41,027.