Nick Townsend: More and more of Heinze, less of Morientes

Click to follow
The Independent Football

This may have been won by the boy regarded around Anfield as less from Merseyside and more from the dark side. Yet this confirmation of Manchester United's North-west supremacy was, in reality, a triumph for that club's most frequently-derided component: their rearguard.

No Van Nistelrooy, no Giggs, no Ferdinand: United were again denuded of a trio of their most influential performers. No matter. For the second occasion in four days, that once maligned back four has answered a sustained examination, first by Chelsea in the Carling Cup, and then yesterday at Anfield where Milan Baros and Fernando Morientes permitted Roy Carroll to recover the poise that deserted him when conceding "the goal that never was" against Spurs.

Other than a one-footed denial of Jamie Carragher in the closing minutes, Carroll - or should we henceforth, in view of that aberration, refer to him as Oh-oh, Carroll? - had been relatively untroubled.

The United manager could not resist, at the conclusion of a week in which the cut and thrust of managerial observation among the Premiership triumvirate has rarely been more savage, a final lance at United's Premiership rivals. "Arsenal have been here; Chelsea have been here. But I would have thought our performance would have been the best of the three," asserted the irascible Scot.

This time, it was not one of his occasional bouts of myopia. The utter reasonableness of his claim was blindingly transparent as the visitors' back-line, in which left-back Gabriel Heinze's poise and tenacity, his ability to read and cover, cajole and thrust a foot in when required, epitomised the whole. It was a defence damned if they would buckle under the stresses they were placed under - and notably after the second-half dismissal of Wes Brown - complemented by a rejuvenated father-protector Roy Keane and a resurgent Paul Scholes.

A seventh game without conceding a goal, equalling a record established just after the First World War, this was a performance which confirmed United as still a real menace to the ambitions of both London pace-setters. Certainly, Morientes, attempting to announce his transformation from Real Madrid makeweight to Liverpool heavyweight, would have selected a more inviting fixture for his debut.

It may have required seven years for the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft to reach Titan and garner information from hitherto unexplored worlds. Rafael Benitez has rather less time to secure success demanded by the Anfield faithful, and, to a degree, his captain Steven Gerrard, with his own mission to that brave new world, Costa del Merseyside - one in which Morientes joins Josemi, Luis Garcia, Antonio Nuñez the Argentinian Mauricio Pelligrino, and the currently injured Xabi Alonso.

Morientes has an impressive record on his various debuts. Goals on his starts for Albacete, Real Zaragoza, Real Madrid and for Spain's Under-18, Under-20 and senior side boded well. Up to a point.

Before the game, the 28-year-old had been described by David Beckham as "Sheringham-like". We assume the England captain was alluding to his intelligent link play as a withdrawn striker; not his pace. Here Morientes' own claim that he lacked match-sharpness was generally supported by the evidence.

There were, however, sufficient subtle touches - if not finishing ones - to commend him to the Kop. Morientes has not scored since October, admittedly to a great extent because he has frequently been a substitute, and it showed. His best opportunity in the first half arrived when he chested down Garcia's lofted pass, eluded Brown, but skied the ball. Another ball from Garcia again proved troublesome for United but, under pressure from Phil Neville, Morientes headed wide.

In the second period, it required a splendid saving tackle from Heinze to deny him. Morientes' afternoon, which lasted 75 minutes, ended with a weak header from Gerrard's free-kick - a foul awarded against Brown when the accompanying second caution produced the United man's dismissal.

Citizen Keane comfortably proved the more potent midfield motivator against a rather subdued General Gerrard. The rage has dimmed within the Irishman over recent months, and it is to be hoped Wayne Rooney, a cauldron of simmering testosterone on alien territory, will learn from his older and wiser team-mate. The teenager brought symmetry to his own return to Merseyside with a 19th yellow in the Premiership to add to his 19th goal. It proved sufficient for United, given so steadfast a defence.

You scarcely noticed that Ferdinand was missing. "In case you haven't noticed, United can also win the quad," he had insisted before the game, irritated by the concentration on Chelsea's ambitions. He has a point, though Chelsea would surely reject such a notion. Still, United had three as they once again enforced the argument that they certainly can defend.


Put Steven Gerrard in his pocket, zipped it up and put on the padlock. Vintage Keane - snarling, gnarling and dominant.