Liverpool 0 Manchester United 1: Tevez reminds Anfield of the punch found in true contenders

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The Independent Football

Grand Slam Sunday becomes Prozac Monday for Liverpool today. Their Premier League title challenge was dealt a mighty blow yesterday by the club that Anfield loves to hate and Rafael Benitez's bargaining position with his American employers has become ever more fragile.

The long-awaited peace summit between Benitez and Liverpool's owners, George Gillett and Tom Hicks, was due to take place last night, although it would be difficult to see how the Spaniard would be negotiating from what the business world describes as a position of strength. In the marque fixture of English football yesterday, his team were bereft of ideas and scarcely able to make an impact on Sir Alex Ferguson's slick, resilient Manchester United side.

Carlos Tevez's decisive goal was, in the words of the Liverpool manager, a "lucky" goal that United would only have been able to pull off "once in a hundred times". But even a Texan multi-millionaire with a background in baseball would have been able to spot the flaws in that argument. As the home crowd found it harder to contain their groans and complaints, the painful truth was taking shape that United look a lot further ahead of Liverpool than the nine-point gap that separates them in the Premier League.

Benitez continued to insist that his job was safe last night and that the meeting was a question of him "clarifying the situation for the future". He added: "It's not about the money. It is just to know exactly what position we are in now."

No more "misunderstandings" is the party line from Anfield on the relationship between the owners and the manager. Hicks and Gillett may feel the key misunderstanding was them crossing the Atlantic in the belief that they would see their team give United a proper game.

The explanation the Americans obtain from Benitez will have to be more convincing than the one he offered post-match, in which he said his side controlled the game. "I think we were in control but did not create much," he said. "We had enough chances and it is important to score first and they did." Just about all he would concede was a Harry Kewell mistake in the build-up to United winning the corner from which they scored, but, on the whole, he seemed to be saying that this result was hard on Liverpool.

It was not an argument even the most rabid Koppite would try to make. While United were impeccable at the back, especially Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, and solid in midfield with Owen Hargreaves and Anderson, Liverpool simply lacked a viable plan to win the match. Not that this game, the 50th time Ferguson has faced Liverpool, will take its place among the greats.

Instead it was the kind of match in which a player of Hargreaves' quality shone the brightest; a bitterly cold afternoon and an occasionally bruising encounter which was tailor-made for the foot-in specialists, the harriers and those who measure their performances in possession-won rather than goals scored. Cristiano Ronaldo and Kewell were equally anonymous. A Liverpool fan in the Centenary Stand threw a golf ball at Wayne Rooney but missed which just about summed up the game.

For most of the time, the longing for victory that poured down from the stands was not matched by the quality on the pitch. In Edwin van der Sar, United had a goalkeeper who was a mistake waiting to happen; the problem for Benitez's side was that they just could not make it happen. Fernando Torres looked uncertain and Dirk Kuyt was ineffective in his own uniquely purposeful manner. By the time Peter Crouch replaced Kuyt, Liverpool had decided on the artless long balls which were no use to Crouch or anyone else.

For Ferguson, these kind of victories have been the mainstay of his regime and a winning visit to Anfield is all the reminder he needs of how far his club have come in the last 21 years. "A marvellous day for us," was how he described the win. "In terms of playing football, we were the better team," he said. "It's going to be a long struggle and fight throughout the season. I always said that if we are there or thereabouts at new year we have an outstanding chance of winning the title."

The winner came two minutes before half-time when Ryan Giggs' short corner found Rooney on the right side of the area. His low shot fizzed into the crowd of bodies in the area and Tevez lifted it over Jose Reina from close range. It was a half-chance but the margin of victory in games like these is rarely much more. Liverpool squandered two of their own chances in the first half when Van der Sar's judgement abandoned him twice.

Both times the Dutch goalkeeper ran into his own defenders when coming out to clear the ball first, on 27 minutes, Anderson had to clear Kewell's shot off the line and then Torres put his header wide of the post. Four minutes later Van der Sar did the same again, colliding with Vidic before he was bailed out by Patrice Evra. The first half had threatened to become spiky there was the makings of an intriguing battle between Steven Gerrard and Anderson but even that wilted with the home side's challenge.

The second consecutive league defeat for Liverpool and yet Ferguson's side are far from shoo-ins for the title. Not when Ronaldo gives so little on the big occasions like this. Rooney should have done much better with a backpost chance from Ronaldo's cross and there would have been a lot worse thrown on the pitch than golf balls if he had been celebrating at the Anfield Road End.

Just one good result for the Hicks family at Anfield this weekend. The stadium announcer earnestly informed a rather nonplussed home crowd that Tom Hicks' son Alex had successfully proposed to his girlfriend Portia Tuma on the centre spot on Saturday. What Ms Tuma made of her future husband's new family investment yesterday was not made public, although the assumption is she preferred Saturday's outcome to yesterday. If Benitez wants an invite to the wedding, he better buck his ideas up.

Goal: Tevez (43) 0-1

Liverpool (4-4-1-1): Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise (Aurelio, 80); Benayoun, Gerrard, Mascherano, Kewell (Babel, 66); Kuyt (Crouch, 73); Torres. Substitutes not used: Itandje (gk), Lucas.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Ronaldo, Hargreaves, Anderson (O'Shea, 89), Giggs; Tevez (Carrick, 83), Rooney. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Saha, Fletcher.

Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire)

Booked: Liverpool Gerrard, Mascherano; Manchester United Brown, Evra, Anderson.

Man of the match: Hargreaves.

Attendance: 44,459

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