James Lawton: Scholes enjoys his red-letter day as Gerrard is ruthlessly eclipsed
Monday 23 October 2006
England's Steve McClaren has already been rejected once by Paul Scholes, who for several weeks now has been conducting a master-class in the art and the vision required to play in midfield as a consistent match-winning presence rather than an occasional virtuoso contributor. McClaren apparently took up a mildly beseeching posture while making his first request. Now he should go all the way. He should get down on his hands and knees.
The new, desperate entreaty must surely follow Scholes' total eclipse of current England resident Steven Gerrard in this almost embarrassingly comfortable Manchester United defeat of Liverpool... and ascension to the top of the Premiership.
Had it been any easier for the 31-year-old, who walked away from the international stage two years ago in his disgust at the midfield tinkering of Sven Goran Eriksson, he would have been entitled to light a cigar in celebration of his 500th appearance in a red shirt.
Gerrard's desserts? A long and lingering look in the mirror. Stevie G, as he is referred to by so many fervent admirers, was a quite shocking counterpoint to Scholes.
It was hard to know which was the more dismaying... his almost completely irrelevant performance, a strolling, posturing parody of what might reasonably be expected of a "world-class" midfielder in one of the most vital games of the season for his suddenly embattled club or body language which spoke of something which was hard to distinguish from outright indifference.
In the early, formative stages of a match in which Liverpool would be ultimately outclassed, Gerrard several times took the time to deliver lectures to his team-mates. He made it clear where he wanted the ball to be delivered. It was to his feet. In the meantime, though, Gerrard's duty to be involved at the heart of matters was blithely ignored. By comparison, Scholes was both the heart-beat and the central force of his team. He pushed United into the lead in the 42nd minute, an advantage which Rafa Benitez's critically misfiring team did not truly threaten on a single occasion. Rio Ferdinand's goal in the second half was taken with exquisite skill. But it was also the last word in formality. Liverpool, once again a quilt weaved by a Benitez apparently increasingly obsessed by the need to rotate his squad, had completely failed to examine United's right to a goal-difference lead over Chelsea at the top of the Premiership.
Xabi Alonso, who at various times has promised to be a bitingly intelligent and technically brilliantly force at the heart of the Anfield midfield, was only marginally more influential than the anonymous Gerrard. It meant that Scholes, with the most significant assistance of Ryan Giggs, ran the game so nonchalantly he might have been doing his regular shop at his local supermarket in Oldham. The least starry of major players, Scholes displayed both absolute authority and an astonishing appetite. He was, as much as anything, a stake aimed at the heart of celebrity football.
Perhaps only second to David Beckham in this department, Gerrard from time to time runs narrowed eyes over the title-winning potential of his club - and issues warnings about their need to show title-winning potential if he is to remain a contented Anfield soldier. But their chances of delivering on promise that seemed to have reached a high watermark coming into this season will inevitably dwindle if a player of such vast reputation cannot contribute more to one of the key games of the season.
There were other Liverpool disaster areas. Luis Garcia, a sporadic scorer of spectacular goals, is notorious for his lack of economy on the ball, but this was a notably wasteful performance even by his own profligate standards. Mark Gonzalez on the left was pacy enough but was utterly lacking in guile.
Given such deficiencies, it was inevitable that United would again persuade their manager Sir Alex Ferguson that they have the potential to end Chelsea's two-year domination of the Premiership. Naturally, he glowed after such easy superiority over a team which not so long ago were being spoken of as Chelsea's likeliest challengers. The reality, though, was different. Liverpool brought no kind of challenge to Old Trafford and if United had some impressive moments in their easy control - not least when a Louis Saha clearly growing in both power and confidence was on the ball - it was never quite enough to dissipate the memory of Chelsea's superb triumph over European champions Barcelona last week.
United, with Wayne Rooney again showing at least hints of the power that deserted him so profoundly after his first game of the season, no doubt have enough reasons to believe they can make a more serious run at the champions this time, but then the depth of their will and the hard edge of their talent was never properly tested on this day.
This was alarming for a Benitez who had hoped for a major contribution from the lionised Gerrard. The manager has coaxed and flattered Gerrard, he has tried to impart tactical discipline by giving him fixed roles, but still he looks for a sustained and winning influence. Yesterday he saw only a Liverpool wasteland. And, of course, Paul Scholes.
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