On the top deck of the coach which carried his Manchester United side out of Anfield on Saturday afternoon, Sir Alex Ferguson unfolded a copy of the Racing Post. It would have occupied him most the way back along the M62 because he knows that in the sport of kings, as in football, there is rarely such a thing as a dead cert.
It was the day when football's nouveaux riches upstaged a clash between the two venerable sides who, between them, have dominated the game for much of the past three decades and at Anfield, as at Eastlands, money seemed destined to do the talking. Ferguson paraded a £31m debutant while Rafael Benitez, minus Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, countered with Albert Riera, an £8m buy from Espanyol who had struggled to do much at Manchester City, long before the days when the fans sauntered up to the ground with tea towels on their heads.
There is a more priceless commodity in the game than cash, of course. It is called spirit, the quality which fills every Saturday with uncertainty, and fittingly for a day when Bill Shankly was called to mind in a protest which drew 2,000 fans together in union against Liverpool's owners it was the quality which prevailed. Benitez and Sammy Lee had asked that You'll Never Walk Alone be played to rally the fans just before kick-off – a strategy straight out of Shankly's book – and their players took the message as well.
The money talked for two minutes and 33 seconds. That was the time it took Dimitar Berbatov, looking at home in his new white jersey as the old one, to receive a flick from Carlos Tevez and drive a right foot shot against Martin Skrtel's arm; then cut back past Jamie Carragher from the deadball line to level a ball for Tevez, who was granted a shameful amount of space to release a right-footed strike past Skrtel's despairing lunge.
Then the spirit took over. Jamie Carragher, a Shankly man if ever there was one, silenced Berbatov. Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso stifled the life out of Anderson and Paul Scholes. The Argentine's contribution to the deciding goal, harrying the ball from Ryan Giggs's grasp as he tried to put it out, to allow Dirk Kuyt to cross for Ryan Babel, was one of many offerings.
"Some people don't realise how good some of these players are because they are not big names," said Benitez, reflecting on how Liverpool had just proved they could deliver without the two players who can make them look too much like a double act. It was left to Gerrard to mention Alonso, playing in the knowledge that his manager wanted him out to make way for Gareth Barry two months back. "I must give a special mention for Alonso," Gerrard said. "He had a very difficult time just before the transfer window shut, and didn't know if he was coming and going." Benitez, privately indignant that Ferguson has been questioning his summer's work, said the psychological effect of overcoming another of the big four – something Liverpool did not manage last season – and ending four years without a win against United was as valuable as the points. "If you lose this game it's more or less six points. Now we know we can beat anyone." It was some statement for a manager whose mantra usually runs that any win is worth three points and nothing more.
Though Gerrard also saw the win as "a big statement for the future" and one of the club's most important results in recent years in the Premier League, there are still problems to be dealt with. The American owners still appear to be deeply factionalised, despite the impression of an entente which they have provided this summer. Hicks forms one power group, with his appointees, finance director Philip Nash and commercial manager Ian Ayers, seemingly set against George Gillett and chief executive Rick Parry.
But United are the ones with most to ponder. Tucking Tevez in behind Berbatov will serve both players but not Wayne Rooney, a shadow on the right wing of the man who ravaged Croatia last Wednesday. Michael Carrick will miss Wednesday's Champions League opener with Villarreal after limping off with ankle injury and re-appearing with a plaster cast and clutches. Vidic, justifiably dismissed for leading with an elbow on Alonso, 11 minutes after hacking at Keane, will miss the trip to Chelsea.
Which of the two sides is destined to prosper? Money or not, there is just no way of knowing. "Football," as Ferguson once so famously said. "Bloody hell."
Goals: Tevez (3) 0-1; Brown OG (27) 1-1; Babel (77) 2-1.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Arbeloa, Skrtel, Carragher, Aurelio; Benayoun (Gerrard, 68), Alonso, Mascherano (Hyypia, 87), Riera (Babel, 71); Kuyt, Keane. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri, Dossena, Torres, Ngog.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1):Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Scholes (Hargreaves, 66), Carrick (Giggs, 46); Rooney, Tevez, Anderson (Nani, 78); Berbatov. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak, Evans, O'Shea, Fletcher
Referee: Howard Webb (S Yorkshire)
Booked: Manchester United: Tevez, Nani
Sent off: Vidic (90)
Man of the match: Mascherano (Liverpool) Attendance: 44, 192
'I have changed football,' claims Ronaldo as he rejects talk of move to City
Cristiano Ronaldo said on Saturday that it was unlikely he would move to Manchester City, after reports linked him to a move to Manchester United's rivals. "No one knows my future, but I don't see myself in the shirt of another Manchester team," he said.
The winger, who underwent ankle surgery in July but is expected to be part of United's Champions League squad to play Villarreal on Wednesday, also said he does not fear a hostile reception at Old Trafford after asking to be sold to Real Madrid. "When I put on the [United] shirt, I give my all. And I'm already in the history of the club," he said. "When I play again the fans will love me again."
He also believes he has changed the game by scoring 31 goals from midfield in the League last season to win the European Golden Boot. "With this Golden Boot I have changed football a little," he said. "Usually strikers win it and I am a winger."
He is confident of winning the Ballon d'Or and World Player of the Year too. "The best candidate for the other prizes is Cristiano Ronaldo," he said. "I've been the most consistent. I want to [be one] of the all-time best players."Reuse content