It's about a year since Rafael Benitez stood in an Old Trafford press room, gently ridiculing Sir Alex Ferguson's barbed suggestion that a knowledge of Freud was required to understand the inner recesses of the Spaniard's complicated mind. His side had just overwhelmed Ferguson's 4-1 at the time, so there was good reason to smile along a little. By last night, however, you wondered whether Benitez's nemesis perhaps had it right all along. The Liverpool manager's press conference was a complicated mixture of near unfathomable irony and unvarnished frustration at the manner of another defeat, though the most baffling part of a reverse that puts Liverpool such a dreadfully long way from Champions League football is that they should have forgotten the recipe for undoing United which Benitez articulated so clearly last March.
Benitez declared then that United's defence was not all it had been cracked up to be: "When they don't have the ball and you move the ball quickly behind the defenders you know you can beat them." It was some assertion, given that the Premier League champions had just completed a British record of 14 successive clean sheets at the time.
The first five minutes of yesterday's play were a continuum from that March day. Steven Gerrard demonstrated that Rio Ferdinand is vulnerable to a midfielder running towards him at speed, seconds before Fernando Torres rose to power a majestic header past Pepe Reina. That made it three goals put past Ferguson's defence in 18 consecutive minutes of competition between the sides at Old Trafford.
Given that Xabi Alonso did not even play last March, there was every reason to believe that Liverpool would walk out of this stadium with a fourth consecutive win and, for half an hour, they pressed with an intensity which has not been seen all season. Dirk Kuyt looked like a world beater, Lucas Leiva like a commanding Premier League footballer. They wanted it more.
Then the vision was extinguished as fast as it materialised. One minute Torres was nutmegging Nemanja Vidic and Kuyt crossing dangerously, forcing Ferdinand to deposit the ball unconvincingly into touch with his shin; the next Darren Fletcher was reasserting United's pre-eminence. The low, fast balls behind the defence were replaced by high punts which Vidic dealt with. While United pushed on unceasingly, Benitez removed Gerrard from the advanced role he had started him in. There was even a spell on the left wing – the "graveyard shift" Gerrard so detests.
Wayne Rooney had started out looking like the nervous striker, wearing black gloves on a warm spring day out of a belief that it would take superstition to put paid to his goal drought against Liverpool. But he was the one in command of himself, restraining the goalscoring celebrations when you felt he would vent himself on the Liverpool fans. Torres cut a sorry sight: scuffing up the penalty spot before Rooney's penalty, booked for the fourth time in five matches after a hack at Park Ji-sung, clapping ironically so frequently that he generated the most animated of responses you will see from Howard Webb. Ball control disappeared with his self-control and he was mentally unequipped to stroke home the ball Gerrard levelled for him in the 89th minute.
Benitez's claims for a top four place seemed thin last night, demonstrating how far football can move in 12 months. The banner hanging from the Stretford End will have cut Gerrard the deepest. "Making history, not living it," it read.Reuse content