Nick Townsend: Neville seeks no hiding place from venom of the ages

Rooney appears to relish every decibel of abuse
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The Independent Football

Only a couple of minutes had elapsed yesterday, with the crowd exhorting Liverpool to provide suitable retribution for the visiting captain's sins, and Harry Kewell duly sated their blood lust. What you could call an Aussie handshake.

Having failed to impede Gary Neville legitimately as both dashed down the Manchester United right flank, the Liverpool midfielder committed what can only be described as a gratuitous assault which dispatched the England full-back on to the artificial grass surrounds.

The crowd in the immediate vicinity were on their feet, acclaiming the act. No reaction, though, from Anfield enemy No 1, who recognised that this would most likely be the first of many similar responses to his end-of-game gestures at Old Trafford 27 days earlier. Not too much response, disconcertingly, from the referee, Howard Webb, either. He had words with the offender, but nothing more. Good refereeing, some may contend, so early in the game. Howard the duck, others may reflect on his abdication of duty; others perhaps such as the Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. He sat, gimlet-eyed, a few yards away in the directors' box, and chewed a little harder on his gum.

A few bets had been won on who would be the first Liverpool player to foul the Manchester United captain as a reprisal for those badge-clutching histrionics at the conclusion of the League match last month which have brought an FA charge against Neville. It was as predictable as the eventual booking of a combative Kewell after he felled Neville again, and the subsequent caution of the Manchester United man in the second half after an innocuous trip on, you guessed it, Kewell. There was just a suspicion that the official was doing his bit to remain in good odour with the crowd.

By then a contest which had simmered and then bubbled was spitting venom. Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney had chatted like a couple of housewives over the garden fence as both teams lined up after half-time. But that was as amiable as it got. Back-chat to the officials - Momo Sissoko has already declared himself the John McEnroe of footballers with his ludicrous over-reaction to officials' failure to concur with his demand for fouls - and recklessness in the challenge became increasingly prevalent. But you had expected nothing less from two ancient, instinctively hostile rivals. The surprise was that United substitute Alan Smith's horrendous late injury should be an accident.

Well before then, Rafa Benitez's team had ensured their participation in the sixth round, and condemned United to a Premiership consolation prize. That is all they have left in season of new ownership. "Sold to the USA," the Kop gleefully teased the visiting supporters, to the tune of the Bruce Springsteen classic. For the real "boss", that of Manchester United, it has been a season which can only hasten his retirement.

A header from Peter Crouch, who had covered himself in glory during December but has since gone into hibernation on the goalscoring front, was always liable to be sufficient in a contest which will, sadly, be memorable only for the Smith injury and the vitriol aimed at Neville, who, at the end, waved to the crowd as though signalling that "we are back on equal terms now" and departed to celebrate his 31st birthday, having demonstrated that discretion is the better part of anger.

For Neville, there was no place to hide. The United captain made no attempt to do so. When Sami Hyypia caught him with an ugly second-half challenge, he went down and could have exaggerated the damage, but, with the crowd baying, rose almost immediately. By the end, there must have been grudging admiration from even the most fanatical of United-baiters. Yet if Neville was damned because he is such a passionate disciple of the city of his birth, Wayne Rooney was even more maligned for having the temerity to have gone over to the Dark Side of his.

Rooney appears to relish every decibel of abuse. It merely galvanises him. But here yesterday, his determination to leave no ball unchallenged brought the England man no reward. Hyypia and Jamie Carragher were immovable and United were restricted to optimistic attempts from Cristiano Ronaldo. It was as well they were, because, apart from Kewell, who constantly troubled the United rearguard, Benitez is still left wondering where his own team's next goal will come from. The jury has left the judge a note, asking if he will accept a majority verdict on Crouch, who despite a splendid headed winner, is still far from being an authentic Anfield striker. About Fernando Morientes, the less said the better.

Despite progress on three fronts, the poverty of Liverpool's scoring records will still dom-inate Benitez's immediate thinking; after yesterday, Ferguson can ponder his team's limitations at leisure.