Manchester United 2 Liverpool 0: Scholes sounds title intent to leave Liverpool lost for words

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The Independent Online

A quiet man, but, in matches like these, capable of the most eloquent statements. Paul Scholes' 500th match for Manchester United, and the decisive first goal, may elicit little more than a shrug from a man who keeps his true self hidden deep away, but for the Premiership itself it was an outcome that spoke loud.

Not so much about United whose win, adorned with a fine second goal from Rio Ferdinand, takes them to the top on goal difference, but certainly for Liverpool. They are 11 points adrift of United and Chelsea and hopelessly off the pace barely three months into a season that promised so much. Are they out of title contention? Rafael Benitez seemed to indicate not, but his post-match ramblings betrayed the pressure as another Premiership season threatens to crumple before the leaves on autumn trees.

The most chilling factor for Benitez will be the recognition that United did not have to play exceptionally well to beat their bitter old enemy, although certain individuals thrived. None more so than Scholes, whose afternoon began with a presentation to mark his 500th game for the club, a silver salver handed over by Sir Bobby Charlton that he slipped back on to the table almost as quickly as he has been known to palm off the captain's armband.

That is the way with Scholes, not one for ceremony or grandstanding, which is why they cherish him so much at Old Trafford. Asked later about the significance of the day he struggled to show anything approaching enthusiasm for much beyond the result.

"It was quite special," he said, "but if it's your 500th or your first match for United, it's a big thing. It doesn't make much difference." That might even count as hyperbole in Scholes' world; he certainly needed prising out of the changing rooms to speak about his achievement. "That was a big day for us," he said, "we had to beat Liverpool to stay up with Chelsea."

Scholes may have been surprised at how meekly those three points were handed over. It never became one of those bloodthirsty battles fuelled by hatred in the stands - even Gary Neville would have struggled to find the enthusiasm for a fist-pumping, badge-clutching salute.

Liverpool rarely turn up at Old Trafford just to lie down and die but that was distinctively their mood yesterday. Benitez said later that Scholes' first goal six minutes before the interval had been decisive, that afterwards it had "become difficult to score." He was without Craig Bellamy and there will surely be changes for the visit of Aston Villa on Saturday but then he is no stranger to that, this being the 97th consecutive line-up that he has changed from the previous game.

Steven Gerrard looked badly out of touch on the right wing and, given the abuse he gets at Old Trafford, his mood descended further into gloom throughout the afternoon. He was by no means the worst, Luis Garcia was ineffectual, slicing one shot so completely it did not even have sufficient power to curve out for a throw-in. It was difficult to remember an attempt on goal of note from Dirk Kuyt.

Explaining away a performance like that was never going to be easy for Benitez, especially as his team have one point away from home all season . But the Liverpool manager insisted he was not contemplating the end of his title aspirations. "I don't need to analyse the situation every day, I have to change things now," he said. "You change by working hard and working better."

The answer to that would be: where does he start? Even the usual animosity was lacking, especially from Momo Sissoko who was restricted by an early booking. The visiting Liverpool fans were greeted with some fairly graphic insults writ large around the Old Trafford cricket ground but nothing will have been less palatable than that served up by a team crowned champions of Europe 17 months ago.

For long periods of the first half it was necessary to remind yourself that this was the latest instalment in a tale of two cities united by a mutual loathing. Darren Fletcher was feisty, Louis Saha was the game's most skilful performer while Michael Carrick looked like he again needed to be reminded that he is now in the big-time and should start playing accordingly. Then Scholes struck.

A low ball from the left from Ryan Giggs and Scholes' shot hit Jose Reina, looped up and he guided it home. "There is a growing belief about the team," Sir Alex Ferguson said. "We started the season with hope and desire and intention and so far they have not let us down."

Scholes has scored far better goals, some finer even than United's second from Ferdinand. Giggs' cross from the left came off Jamie Carragher and, at the back post, Ferdinand controlled the ball with his right and then, cutting in, struck a vicious rising shot across Reina into the top corner of the goal. "Goal of the month," he announced later, tongue-in-cheek, although he had a point.

You hear a lot about Ferdinand's eye for goal in training and his schoolboy prowess in midfield but see precious little evidence on the pitch. Four goals in 178 United performances is not the record of a goalscoring defender but he also got the winner here against Liverpool in January and this time his three-month-old son Lorenz was attending his first Old Trafford game.

There was no Cristiano Ronaldo in the United starting XI and Wayne Rooney is still not quite the man he was before his injury in April yet the Ferdinand goal, on 63 minutes, effectively ended the match as a contest. There will have to be changes, and Peter Crouch deserves his place back, although it is surely consistency of selection that this Liverpool team crave.

Ferguson said he "would never dismiss a Liverpool team" although in private he must feel that one title contender has been disposed of. He has made a career out of fracturing the Anfield dynasty and it is those kind of historical accolades that he and his reticent midfielder in the No 18 shirt prefer. At the top of the table you anticipate them both carrying on for a while yet.

Goals: Scholes (39) 1-0; Ferdinand (63) 2-0.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; G Neville (O'Shea, 77), Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra (Brown, 90); Fletcher, Scholes, Carrick, Giggs; Rooney, Saha. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Ronaldo, Solskjaer.

Liverpool (4-4-1-1): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise; Gerrard, Sissoko, Alonso (Crouch, 69), Gonzalez (Pennant, 52); Garcia; Kuyt. Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Warnock, Paletta.

Referee: G Poll (Hertfordshire).

Booked: Manchester United Vidic; Liverpool Sissoko, Finnan, Crouch.

Man of the match: Scholes.

Attendance: 75,828.

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