To the vast bank of history which fuels the vitriol between Liverpool and Manchester United fans was added a new legend yesterday: the moment Javier Mascherano lost his mind.
The Argentine's 30-yard sprint across Old Trafford to remonstrate with Steve Bennett for booking Fernando Torres just before half-time was, with the debate on respect for referees still fresh in the mind, an extraordinary piece of timing and it left Rafael Benitez pacing the tunnels of Old Trafford with a face like thunder late yesterday. Benitez declared himself baffled by Bennett's decision to send off for dissent a player who was "just asking" for an explanation of the booking. Mascherano knew he had "made a mistake", added Benitez who, before Bennett issued a red, seemed to see the writing on the wall when he leapt to his feet from the dugout to order his midfielder, in Spanish, to desist from the dissent.
Benitez resisted the temptation to suggest that Bennett had been influenced by the aftermath of events last Wednesday at White Hart Lane, where he was fourth official during Ashley Cole's outburst against Mike Riley and was later censured by the referees' head Keith Hackett for failing to point out that Cole's tackle on Alan Hutton was a red-card offence or to help Riley deal with the dissent. "Ask him," said Benitez when asked if the incidents were linked.
But the reaction of Liverpool's players to Mascherano's dismissal suggested that they knew his time was up. The game was 15 minutes old when Mascherano performed a remarkable imitation of Cole, turning his back on Bennett after his bad one-footed challenge on Paul Scholes had earned him a yellow card. The demons possessed him thereafter and, aided and abetted by Torres, he gave Bennett the rough edge of his tongue three time more before deciding to step in for a fourth.
The events which followed the player's dismissal were also as dark as any Chelsea managed to conjure last Wednesday. The sight of Xabi Alonso, the Liverpool coach Alex Millar, fourth official Chris Foy and ultimately Benitez restraining Mascherano – the Spaniard placing his hands on Mascherano's shoulders and staring into his face as he tried to compose him – did not cover Liverpool in glory. Neither did Benitez, remonstrating at the dugout with United's assistant manager, Carlos Queiroz, for suggesting Torres had dived to earn a free-kick. The United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, took delight in insisting Mascherano should have been gone. But Rio Ferdinand's reaction to a 60th-minute booking better showed how his side does things. No word from him, though Torres seemed to have fallen over his leg.
Legions of Liverpool fans will have headed home last night insistent that United's dealing with Torres warranted firmer action from Bennett but when the dust settles on the controversy the cold truth is that United – now five points clear at the top of the Premier League – were, while below their best, a considerably superior team.
The system which Benitez has found some comfort in of late, conjuring seven wins on the trot, came unstuck the minute it became clear that this was not to be one of Steven Gerrard's better afternoons. So often a man for the big occasion, Gerrard's distribution was curiously poor, which meant no real supply line to Torres, the man with whom his understanding had started to seem telepathic. It was Mascherano who most proved his worth, reducing Cristiano Ronaldo to a mere mortal for once – before leaving the field. Bereft of any great flow Liverpool left United to pick up the game.
In Scholes, United do possess a player they can endlessly depend on. His own biting challenge on Mascherano with the game a minute old signalled the 34-year-old's intent and he showed, in the exquisite 20-yard crossfield pass which sent Wayne Rooney skipping through the central channel early on, that he will shape days like these for as long as he has the power inside him to do so
Liverpool too often allowed Scholes the space to do so and though another pass to Rooney was marginally overhit on 35 minutes, it proved decisive. The striker sprinted 15 yards, retrieved it and crossed towardsWes Brown. The ball looped in off his back as Pepe Reina flapped.
The pre-match comparisons had been between Ronaldo and Torres, but the more instructive one here was between Rooney and Torres. United's man may have missed two clear early chances for his first goal at Old Trafford since October, but his contribution across the field made him the game's outstanding player. He also provided its outstanding piece of skill when, with Gerrard moved into Mascherano's holding role after the break and Liverpool seemingly out of hope, he took down a long punt from Edwin van der Sar on his right foot and shot first time with his left. Reina's save was one of three of the highest order.
Torres was isolated and possessed with some of Mascherano's demons. His relentless tirades against Bennett, coupled with a dire second-half challenge on Nemanja Vidic, would have made a red to follow the yellow quite justified.
Liverpool did have fleeting glimpses of hope as the game wore on. When Ferdinand completely misjudged a Gerrard free-kick, the ball flew across the penalty area to Torres who, out of sheer surprise, stabbed it wide from point blank range. But United's finishing was assured. Nani's 79th-minute corner was headed home by Ronaldo, who left Alonso for dead and capitalised on another flap by Reina. Two minutes later Nani cut left to right across the box and blasted in a third, right-footed.
For Benitez, a rib injury for injury means more worries before next weekend's Merseyside derby, which Mascherano will miss. But perhaps, by prompting a response to a code of conduct where the Argentine runs amok and the cameras catch Gerrard mouthing the words "you're taking the fucking piss" to Bennett, the game's significance resides in the longer term.
Goals: Brown (34) 1-0; Ronaldo (79) 2-0; Nani (81) 3-0.
Manchester United (4-5-1): Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Ronaldo, Scholes, Carrick, Anderson (Tevez, 73), Giggs (Nani, 73); Rooney. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Hargreaves, O'Shea.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Skrtel, Aurelio; Mascherano, Alonso; Kuyt, Gerrard, Babel (Benayoun 66); Torres (Riise 82). Substitutes not used: Itandje (gk), Hyypia, Crouch.
Referee: S Bennett (Kent).
Booked: Manchester United Ferdinand; Liverpool Mascherano, Torres, Arbeloa.
Sent off: Mascherano (44).
Man of the match: Rooney.
For Capello's notebook
Rio Ferdinand The Manchester United central defender gave a commanding performance and stifled the in-form Liverpool striker Fernando Torres with little fuss. Was booked for kicking the ball away but managed not to complain.
Wayne Rooney A superb and tireless display by the Manchester United striker, despite a lack of goals and a knock to the knee which leaves him in doubt for the match in Paris on Wednesday night.
Steven Gerrard It was not a day on which the Liverpool captain offered much for the watching Franco Baldini, Capello's right-hand man, to get excited about. Was not helped by the dismissal of his team-mate Javier Mascherano which left him chasing shadows for the remainder of the match.Reuse content