James Lawton: New dawn fades for limp Liverpool before Daniel Sturridge rekindles some self-belief
All the progress Liverpool had made looked like a rather large mirage against Manchester United
This was the day when we were supposed to see the brave new face of Liverpool. Instead, we had the somewhat anxious one of Sir Alex Ferguson as he eyed his watch in the last minutes of his latest victory in a season which is beginning to reek of mediocrity.
There were, it is true, some moments of redemption as his Manchester United side took another stride towards their 20th title.
Robin van Persie scored his 17th league goal after a rare bout of superior teamwork, a flash of conviction that seemed to have strayed into the wrong game, and when Brendan Rodgers remembered that he was in charge of a self-proclaimed football revolution, Liverpool began to look like a team of half-serious ambition.
This development came when Daniel Sturridge was sent on at the start of the second half, by which time United really should have been in cruise control.
With Sturridge at last assigned to what we had imagined was the entire purpose of his £12m signing from Chelsea, which is to say giving some sustained support to Luis Suarez, United were suddenly obliged to do more than wait for the next clinical thrust of Van Persie.
They were fortunate that along with the Dutchman's relentless striking, Michael Carrick continued to suggest his significant resurrection in midfield and Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were able to pull off one of the more effective policing jobs on Suarez.
The Uruguayan conjured neither broiling controversy nor luminous skill in the first half, which inevitably left Liverpool looking well short of the momentum to prevent the current gap between the clubs stretching to 24 points.
That changed sharply when Sturridge swooped on the loose ball which followed David de Gea's half-save of a shot by Steven Gerrard. For Liverpool it was a way back from the crushing possibility that all the progress they had made since largely outplaying United at Anfield last September – despite a home defeat which left them in the bottom three – had been pretty much a rather large mirage. This was certainly the prospect after Patrice Evra, with his head, and Vidic, with his face, had conspired to turn a superbly flighted free-kick by Van Persie into the Liverpool net.
Not only were Liverpool beaten, it seemed, but also caught out in a failure of will and self-belief that would surely have dismayed some of Rodgers's bolder predecessors, and most notably Bill Shankly.
Shankly had a notice placed on the entrance to the players' tunnel that declared, "This is Anfield". He deemed it the last word in intimidation. Yesterday Rodgers would have struggled for the same effect had he arranged for the identity of his team to be painted in the sky above Old Trafford.
This was a pity because so much of his work this season has kindled the view that he really is nursing back to life some of the old Liverpool values. They virtually eviscerated Queen's Park Rangers on their own ground, which may have just been the shock therapy that provoked Harry Redknapp's men into their astonishing resistance to Chelsea and Spurs, and the recent destruction of Sunderland reminded many of the old hauteur of a Liverpool team on rampage.
Yesterday there was little or no encouragement to believe in the new dawn before Sturridge appeared. Rodgers has said that his new player may be on his last chance with a major club and of course he arrived at Anfield on less than a wave of acclaim. Undoubtedly talented, his willingness to cover the hardest professional yards was not exactly shrined in the folklore of his previous clubs, Manchester City and Chelsea.
At Old Trafford, though, there was an impressive statement of good intentions and more than a little evidence of superior ability.
Certainly there was enough of it to persuade Ferguson that caution was his best policy when Liverpool found some of the best of themselves in the second half. He sent Phil Jones on for a misfiring Shinji Kagawa rather than seek the quick matador kill so often provided by Javier Hernandez.
At the finish Ferguson's relief was palpable. This was a game that threatened to run out of his control. It was also one that gave new reason to re-consider some of the Premier League's wilder claims about its supreme place in the pecking order of world club football.
United might just find a vein of superior form. There may be a late flowering of the creativity of a Carrick, who seemed to be in danger of slipping from sight.
Danny Welbeck, who was somewhat strangely voted man of the man of the match, could move onto a new level and, who knows, perhaps Wayne Rooney will re-emerge with some of his old furies?
None of this is impossible but at Old Trafford last night it was hard not to believe that Van Persie is shaping up as the man whose greatest achievement is to bring some flashes of light to a rather dark season.
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