As the last seconds of hope were squeezed out of Liverpool, Sir Alex Ferguson jabbed at his wristwatch and cast an accusing look at the fourth official.
And yet, despite the visitors’ comeback and the faint hint of an offside controversy, this game’s combatants were too ill-matched to write themselves into the pages of the most fabled story in British club football history.
Liverpool, for the large part, looked like a team who are a speck in Manchester United’s rear-view mirror this morning and their manager’s suggestion last night that “We are 24 points behind Manchester United but we are not 24 points behind on quality” frankly stretched the bounds of credibility. Humour worked better. “That win might be critical. I don’t think we’ll catch United now,” said former Liverpool player Jan Molby, who must have been joking.
The controversy surrounded the second goal from United, for whom this was the familiar story of spurned opportunities leaving open the potential for their manager to fret. Nemanja Vidic was a boot’s length offside when Patrice Evra’s header cannoned in off his forehead, though Brendan Rodgers wisely desisted from any protestations. Publicly, he also maintained that sunny optimism of his, but there were plenty of grounds for private soul-searching last night. He will ask himself why he didn’t play Daniel Sturridge – the agent of Liverpool’s late renaissance in the game – from the start and why his players could not summon the courage for battle which he swore blind on Friday afternoon would be abundant?
Liverpool are yet to beat one of the Premier League’s top-10 sides this season and Rodgers seized on the notion, when it was put to him, that a win against a big club might just be the “next step” which changes everything. He quoted back Ferguson’s 1990 FA Cup third-round win over Nottingham Forest and expressed hopes for his very own “defining moment”. The more prosaic truth was that his side looked short of class.
Rodgers characterises this squad as one assembled on a shoestring, though that is not entirely true. Joe Allen cost £15m and was the player Rodgers wanted at all costs, even if no cash was left for Fulham’s Clint Dempsey. That leaves Rodgers needing to persist with him, as an article of faith in his own judgement. Rodgers rested Allen over Christmas because he was “jaded” but he stretched logic yesterday by withdrawing Lucas Leiva, one of Liverpool’s few productive players, and not Allen at half time.
Rodgers’ name for his holding midfielder is “controllers” but United commandeered it, as Liverpool drifted deep. They enjoyed comfortable possession – a novelty for them on these occasions – and there were more than 10 passes in the build up to the goal which put them ahead. Shinji Kagawa’s work off the ball was one of its lesser appreciated subtleties but the finished product was simple: Robin van Persie’s own movement allowing him to dart in ahead of Daniel Agger’s challenge to meet Evra’s low cross and scoop the ball beyond Pepe Reina.
It was a desperately timid first half from a Liverpool perspective. Rodgers has been reading Deep Survival, writer Laurence Gonzales’s study of why some people hold onto life and others don’t, and for 45 minutes it looked like his side were just trying to avoid a fatal blow. Liverpool supporters require something far more visceral.
It only made it worse that this was not a virtuoso United afternoon. The Premier League leaders’ goals were a product of defensive failings. But Danny Welbeck’s industry and energy – justifying the manager’s decision that he, rather than Javier Hernandez, would be his man – provided a comparison to Luis Suarez, who looked lost for an hour, with Steven Gerrard marooned way behind him. Neither Raheem Sterling nor Stewart Downing tested a United defence known to be flawed.
Both Welbeck and Van Persie blasted over as United threatened to extend the first-half lead, with Tom Cleverley exerting subtle influence. Suarez’s hooked shot in the dying minutes of that period might have been described as Liverpool’s first attempt on goal had it gone anywhere near it. Sturridge was the most inevitable half-time substitute of the season and one who looked capable of making Ferguson eat the words of his programme notes about the £12m purchase him being “a bit of a gamble,” as Rodgers went 4-4-2 better to match United.
The size of the task was doubled before the Englishman could break his stride though. Glen Johnson allowed Evra to peel away around the back of him to get a head on Van Persie’s free-kick which Vidic, who had escaped Agger, unwittingly diverted in nine minutes into the second half. But Gerrard intercepted Michael Cleverley’s loose attempted ball to Carrick, traded passes with Sterling and unravelled the shot which De Gea could only scramble out, for Sturridge to score.
It was after Kagawa, promising in flashes though still adjusting to Premier League physicality, forced a sharp Reina save that we glimpsed just what a Suarez/Sturridge partnership might deliver. The Uruguayan’s diagonal ball was eased past Rio Ferdinand by Sturridge, who fired the first of his two shots which found the side netting. Some more bull-like Suarez industry saw a ball squirt out which Sturridge blasted over. Ferguson punched the air with two fists when it was over but his pre-match observation had been prescient: Liverpool are on a long road back.
Manchester United: DE GEA 6/10, RAFAEL 7, FERDINAND 6, VIDIC 6, EVRA 7, YOUNG 7, CLEVERLEY 7, CARRICK 6, KAGAWA 6, WELBECK 8, VAN PERSIE 6
Liverpool: REINA 6, JOHNSON 6, AGGER 5, SKRTEL 6, WISDOM 6, ALLEN 5, LUCAS 7, GERRARD 6, STERLING 5, SUAREZ 7, DOWNING
Substitutes: Manchester United Valencia 6 (Young, h-t), Jones (Kagawa, 77), Smalling (Vidic, 79). Liverpool Sturridge 7 (Lucas, h-t), Borini 6 (Sterling, 63), Henderson (Allen, 80).
Booked: Man United Evra. Liverpool Lucas, Skrtel, Johnson, Agger.
Man of the match Welbeck. Match rating 6/10.
Possession: Man United 56%. Liverpool 44%.
Attempts on target: Man United 10. Liverpool 5.
Referee H Webb (South Yorkshire).