Liverpool 2 Manchester Utd 1: Babel breaks United hoodoo

Ferguson's men fade away as Dutch forward earns Benitez first League victory over old enemy
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The Independent Online

Liverpool's supporters lived up to their promise to march in protest against the club's American owners yesterday morning, then roared their team to a success over Manchester United all the more welcome for its rarity value. It was a remarkable achievement for two reasons: firstly, of their two most talismanic players, Steven Gerrard appeared for only 23 minutes and Fernando Torres not at all; secondly, United had strolled into an early lead, with Dimitar Berbatov initially looking like everything you would hope for from a £30m purchase.

However, Berbatov faded and the champions went with him, going fully 40 minutes either side of half-time without creating a chance. During that period an unfortunate own goal by Wes Brown brought the home side parity, which was converted into deserved victory by Ryan Babel in the final quarter of an hour. So Rafa Benitez has a Premier League win over the old enemy at last, after eight failures, and he celebrated afterwards as the last man to leave the pitch after shaking every player's hand.

United, true to tradition, had started with a bold 4-3-3, using Berbatov in between Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez, then began the second half even more positively by bringing on Ryan Giggs for the injured Michael Carrick, who re-emerged on crutches. It was almost too much of a good thing. By that time they were being pushed back and they were forced to introduce Owen Hargreaves in an unsuccessful attempt to win back some midfield control. In the last few minutes even the central defender Nemanja Vidic was sent into attack, before he was sent off for two yellow cards, each of which could have been red. He will miss Sunday's match at Chelsea

Much as he hates to lose here, of all places, United's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, admitted through gritted teeth: "Overall they were the far better team. We didn't have one performance, except possibly Rio Ferdinand. The defending was very, very poor for both goals. We started excellently with a wonderful ball from Berbatov for our goal but Liverpool produced a performance of tackling, hassling and forcing us into mistakes. We should be coping better with it than that." He will be hoping Cristiano Ronaldo will be able, as he has hinted, to take a place on the bench at Stamford Bridge.

The pass Ferguson was referring to from Berbatov was cut back with precision from the by-line into the path of the unmarked Tevez for a perfect start. Perhaps United and their followers felt at that stage that it was all going to be straightforward. But soon Edwin van der Sar was forced to save from Dirk Kuyt, and in the 27th minute the goalkeeper palmed Xabi Alonso's speculative, deflected shot on to Brown's leg and into the net.

A jab over the bar by Tevez shortly afterwards was United's last threat until midway through the second half, when Jose Reina did well to push Giggs's dipping volley over the bar. By then, however, Liverpool were in control, the pressing and tackling of Javier Mascherano and Alonso in midfield stifling their opponents. Attacking the Kop end, with the players and crowd inspiring each other, they twice went close through Yossi Benayoun. Thirteen minutes from the end came a re-run of United's goal, with the visiting defenders this time at fault. Giggs and Vidic hesitated as Mascherano forced his way along the by-line and cut back for Babel, a substitute for the debutant Albert Riera, to drive in.

Vidic was fortunate to receive only a yellow card for bringing down Robbie Keane, who would surely have been away for his first Liverpool goal, and at the start of added time the defender was dismissed after catching Alonso with his elbow. Van der Sar saved from Kuyt, then charged upfield, in vain, for a last United corner, from which Rooney – another visiting player who started well then fell away – drove wide.

George Gillett, sitting in the directors' box, must have allowed himself a smile. Unpopular he and his co-owner, Tom Hicks, may be, especially since the decision not to go ahead with a new stadium, but he left Anfield with the team top of the table, in contrast to their sluggish starts in recent seasons. Benitez can hardly complain about being starved of funds and was, in any case, not in a mood for complaining last night. "The players were really good," he said. "We know now we can beat anyone."

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