Gerrard's walk to title is a long road
Liverpool 1 Manchester United 1
Steven Gerrard is becoming Anfield's Ryan Giggs. No silver flecks yet perhaps, but the twice weekly yoga sessions and now, after Saturday's goal, a type of statistic that is usually attached to the Welshman. Gerrard has scored in 13 consecutive seasons for Liverpool. Only Billy Liddell (15) and, surprisingly, Ronnie Whelan (14) are ahead.
Gerrard will have to be playing at Anfield until he is 38 to match Giggs, who has just chalked his 20th successive season of successive goals for United and who, you imagine, is destined to make it 21. He is also right up there among the English midfielders who have caused Sir Alex Ferguson most trouble over the years – his fifth Premier League goal against Manchester United leaves only Robbie Fowler (six) ahead of him in the modern era. But the question amid the unmitigated joy at being "back and experiencing the emotions of big games again," as he put it in the tight back corridors of Anfield late on Saturday night, was whether the club can rise far enough, quickly enough to deliver him the domestic title he has yearned for.
That piece of silverware has always been a preoccupation. Even after the euphoria of the European Cup triumph in Istanbul, in 2005, the thought of a move to Chelsea "ate away" at him because, as he later reflected, "Liverpool might have won the Champions League but the Premiership belonged to Chelsea."
Encounters with United are too intense and rarefied to draw too many title conclusions from, especially when the leaves are hardly on the ground, but the evidence is there that the club remains "still a long way behind" United, as owner John W Henry put it last week. Sir Alex Ferguson was able to start with Wayne Rooney, Luis Nani and Javier Hernandez on the bench – with the significance of this morning's flight to face Otelul Galati of Romania far greater a consideration than critics of Saturday's United starting XI appreciated – and then simply squeeze the accelerator with them when he judged it necessary.
"You sum a side up by how strong your bench is. You look at our bench today and we had Carroll, Henderson and Bellamy," Gerrard reflected but those players were not there for a rest. Andy Carroll's omission was more interesting than Rooney's, considering that you pay out £35m for days like this.
There were signs that Liverpool's journey under Kenny Dalglish is well under way. Jose Enrique's force of personality shone out in a performance which suggested that the dismay Liverpool felt at Manchester City beating them to Gaël Clichy was premature. He took Chris Smalling to pieces at times. It is not even a surprise, now, that Martin Kelly was also capable of dealing with Ashley Young, even though Dalglish worries about the 21-year-old right-back's succession of injuries, mainly hamstrings.
However, Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson make Liverpool better, not the best, and the £71m net spent by Fenway Sports Group looks more like an investment to get Liverpool out of special measures, than one to make them special. Adam was freed to forge forward powerfully by Gerrard's presence in the side but it was Xabi Alonso's signing from Real Sociedad which persuaded Gerrard that Liverpool were worth persisting with in the summer of 2005. "Top signing. Pure class. Touch, vision, the creative works," he enthused of him in his biography. With the greatest respect, Adam will not produce the same alchemy.
Gerrard is just thankful for the not-so-small mercy of stability. "Enough has been said about the previous regime," he said. "A bit more has been said this week with Pepe [Reina]'s book [which excoriates the George Gillett and Tom Hicks era] being serialised. The new owners have come in, steadied the ship and there is a lot more positivity around from top to bottom in the club."
The game revealed limitations in United, too. Danny Welbeck will not necessarily be the saviour England seeks in Rooney's absence, and Martin Skrtel and Jamie Carragher coped with him, even though the striker insisted that "playing one up front was difficult at times."
The Patrice Evra/Luis Suarez controversy was not the only one. Phil Jones' infuriation with Adam's histrionics for the free-kick Gerrard converted in the 68th minute was not reflected in the extracts of his post-match interview screened by United's in-house TV station, though Adam was indignant about this. "Well everyone has an opinion. I felt a touch and if I hadn't gone down I would have been clear through on goal so there must have been contact," he said.
Yet the question for Gerrard is how long and winding the road to a title might be. "We are really confident we can push on from this game now and put a real good fight in for the top four," he concluded. He wants more than that for his career epitaph. Giggs has 12 titles. He'd take one.
Hillsborough: the search for justice, pages 8&9
Scorers: Liverpool Gerrard 68. Manchester Utd Hernandez 81
Substitutes: Liverpool Henderson 6 (Lucas, 57), Manchester United Nani 5 (Young, 68), Rooney 5 (Park, 68), Hernandez (Jones, 76).
Booked: Liverpool Lucas. Manchester United Young, Ferdinand, Evra.
Man of the match Adam
Match rating 6/10.
Possession: Liverpool 52% Manchester United 48%.
Attempts on target: Liverpool 8 Manchester United 3.
Referee A Marriner (West Midlands). Attendance 45,065.
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