Whenever he exhausts his status as a protected species, Rafa Benitez knows that the end of a meandering road is paved with gold. However, there cannot have been too many ingots of professional satisfaction in his saddlebag after failing to repeat last year's ambush at Old Trafford.
Then, United were engulfed by the force of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard. It turned out to be a mirage of a result, of course, and United won their third straight Premier League title. Yesterday, there were a number of explanations of why this was so.
Most obviously, United remain recognisably a team shaped by consistent priorities. Liverpool, sadly, are still the old ragbag of two or three players of exceptional talent, far too much mediocrity and, most debilitating of all, deep-running disaffection among even the most committed of players.
If you wanted a cameo of this it was probably best expressed when Dirk Kuyt, limited no doubt but a Trojan of commitment and arguably Benitez's most enduringly committed servant in a catastrophic season, was replaced by Alberto Aquilani, Xabi Alonso's replacement who cost £20m, and has yet to create a ripple of conviction that one day he might generate the kind of momentum and command of his predecessor.
Kuyt was doing something uncharacteristic at the time. He was shaking his head. No doubt it was partly a gesture of frustration that he should be withdrawn at a point when the game might still have been saved, something which his dogged spirit has achieved on a remarkable number of desperate occasions. But then it was also hard to dismiss the idea that there was a deeper implication, one that at least whispered the possibility that Albert Riera's recent criticism of the Liverpool manager's aloof and imperious style could just have come from something more than strictly personal angst.
Gerrard's body language might also have been seen as a similar commentary, as Liverpool's chances of securing Benitez's fall-back position of qualifying for next season's Champions League looked increasingly forlorn. Certainly, the idea that he will be happy to proceed to the prime of his career with such little prospect of satisfaction in his club football becomes more unlikely with each piece of new evidence that he is part of a team detached from any realistic hope of significant progress among the elite of the game.
Torres, of course, has been proclaiming both his loyalty and his brilliance, and never more so than with a goal of beauty and consummate facility after just five minutes yesterday, yet he too was soon enough beset by demons of his own.
On the face of it they accompanied the swift slide from Liverpool optimism which came with referee Howard Webb's decision to award a penalty when Javier Mascherano attached himself to Antonio Valencia as the United winger ran into the box. Whatever their cause, though, they endangered Torres' place on the field, and had that been surrendered Liverpool's descent into bankruptcy would have been even more profound.
As it was, they were simply unable to counter effectively the sharply improved United effort after the shock of Torres' superb opening statement. It was a headed goal of perfect execution, a fact hardly smudged by the fact that both Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand had shown appalling dereliction of duty in allowing such a phenomenal finisher so much time and space.
They were fortunate late on when Torres failed to exploit another opportunity, partly created by defensive neglect, but by then the man from Madrid seemed to be operating in his own, feverish world of huge expectation and negligible supply lines.
In that, he was the most dramatic example of the pressures that come to a team who are simply not set up for the challenge of developing the kind of rhythm and confidence that can never be detached from the pursuit of the highest goals. That it is part of United's competitive character has been evident for some time now, not least in the development of Wayne Rooney and the ever-increasing relevance of Darren Fletcher.
For a while the Scot was besieged by the faint praise granted to all overachievers. Now that, surely, is receding in the face of consistently dynamic performance, the hard evidence that he has the will and the bite to shape any game at any level. Yesterday he was just one point of division when two clubs, plainly travelling in different directions, had pressing reasons to produce their best.
United never really did that, but what they did show was another example of what it takes to stay on a hard course. A sense of unity will always be high on the list of demands. United yesterday had more than enough of it.
By comparison, Liverpool could only confirm that it is something beyond their current dreams. Surely, it is time for the golden pay-off.Reuse content