The gentleman from Hertfordshire who wrote to The Times yesterday expressing his incomprehension at football's tribal loyalties would doubtless have been more bewildered than ever by the sound and the fury at Anfield yesterday. The noise was unrelenting and the passion ubiquitous as English football's greatest rivals locked horns, but long before the smoke had cleared after six yellow cards and a single goal it was evident that Sir Alex Ferguson's hope that "we'll be talking about good football afterwards" had been unfulfilled.
All Ferguson had to discuss were a couple of half-chances and a horrific accidental injury to Alan Smith just before the finish. United players catching sight of the damage held their heads in their hands, and it was later confirmed as a broken leg and dislocated ankle. "It's the worst I've ever seen," Ferguson said. "Obviously it's a big blow, but that sums up our season. You need a bit of luck in the Cup and I think it went against us."
Like the goalless draw here in the Premiership five months ago and Manchester United's late, undeserved victory at Old Trafford last month, the quality of the football was disappointing. United bore the greater share of blame for that, failing to respond to Peter Crouch's 19th-minute goal in the manner of a team seeking a third successive FA Cup final and on a run of six victories in seven games.
As 6,500 United followers drifted away afterwards, the name of Roy Keane must have been on many lips. Smith's competitive edge, which will now be missing for the rest of the season, might have been expected to win him a place in midfield from the start, but Ferguson went for an unbalanced quartet with Ryan Giggs and Kieran Richardson in the centre and Cristiano Ronaldo out on the left. Darren Fletcher pushed infield from the right, leaving a gap outside him that Harry Kewell could have done more to exploit, especially after shaking Gary Neville up with a highly popular foul in the first three minutes.
Richardson ended up filling three different positions in five minutes either side of the interval, starting the second half at left-back after Louis Saha replaced Mikaël Silvestre. That led to Wayne Rooney moving to the left of midfield as the visiting supporters chanted "attack", but most of the time it was Liverpool on the counter-attack who looked the more likely to score.
So Ferguson's team are left to concentrate on next Sunday's Carling Cup final against Wigan as their only hope of avoiding a second season without a trophy, before making sure of securing second place in the Premiership ahead of Liverpool.
Rafael Benitez, though the FA Cup will be only third on his list of priorities, is learning about the competition's importance, and clearly regarded this as one of those games in which all that matters is the result. Unfortunately, that has come to apply to every meeting between these sides. "We started with high tempo and were controlling the game in the first half," he said. "In the second half they had four strikers and a lot of long balls and second balls, and it was important to work as a team."
Crouch's goal was the first by any Liverpool striker this year - not counting Robbie Fowler's FA Cup hat-trick for Manchester City against Scunthorpe, which rendered him ineligible yesterday. Benitez persevered with Fernando Morientes and recalled Crouch, who was his usual awkward self in pressuring Wes Brown and Nemanja Vidic; Rio Ferdinand was absent with a tight hamstring.
"We didn't have enough height and losing Rio was a blow," Ferguson said. "Liverpool can play for only five minutes and win the game. That is the way they are." Kewell, unexpectedly, might have headed the home side in front a minute before Crouch did. The Australian, meeting Steven Gerrard's free-kick from the left, was thwarted by Edwin van der Sar's fine save at the expense of a corner. Gerrard moved to the other flank to take it and fed Steve Finnan for a cross met by Crouch with a header that was touched on to a post before rolling along the line and, eventually, creeping over it.
Vidic then had to block a shot by Kewell, who claimed a pen-alty in vain when Giggs tackled him, earning the first of the half-dozen cards. Before half-time Finnan ought to have scored his first goal of the season, side-footing wide as Gerrard picked him out with another free-kick.
That prompted Ferguson into his tactical switches, to no great effect, Crouch poking a good chance wide as Vidic hesitated. Jamie Carragher, excellent again, allowed no such lassitude to Ruud van Nistelrooy or Saha, and the most encouraging moment of a dispiriting second half for United was when seven minutes of added time were indicated following the lengthy treatment to Smith. He had left the pitch on a stretcher with an inflatable splint round his leg, the initial abuse from Liverpool supporters having turned to generously sympathetic applause.
Now that really would have confused the letter-writer from Herts.Reuse content