Torres picks the lock for Benitez's latest escape
Liverpool 2 Manchester United 0
It might just be the decision that saved Rafael Benitez's Liverpool career and he made it somewhere on Queens Drive, that innocuous ring road around the city that connects the training ground with Anfield. It was as the team coach drove to the ground that Benitez said he asked Fernando Torres if he was fit to play, and the rest is history.
English football's great managerial escapologist once again picked the lock on the chains around him with a win that turned Liverpool's rapidly diminishing season upon its head. Benitez has mastered the art of the shock victory to the extent that even in the midst of this improbable Liverpool performance, there was something strangely familiar about it. This manager has made the remarkable predictable.
Of course, the problems that afflicted Liverpool through the four defeats that preceded this game do not go away with one sweep of Torres' boot. Benitez has still made a lot of bad signings and is still prone to bizarre decisions, but yesterday he re-affirmed to the club's owners and his adoring fans the old Benitez mystique. The power to pull a result from nowhere.
In Steven Gerrard's absence, Torres was magnificent. Having told his manager at the 11th hour that he was fit, he bullied Rio Ferdinand, further reducing the standing of the England defender who was watched by Fabio Capello's assistant Franco Baldini. Ferdinand just bounced off Torres as the latter ran through to score. Lucky for him that Matthew Upson is in no kind of form to take his place in the England team.
The result left Anfield the happiest dysfunctional family you will ever see. The day began with the protest march against owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett before the game; it ended with a directors' box full of middle-aged American blokes in suits exchanging embarrassing high-fives. In the Kop and around the ground, the divisions were put aside to focus on one common enemy.
The game was won by Torres but in its crucial moments players such as Jamie Carragher, Lucas Leiva and Javier Mascherano, later sent off, made interventions that turned out to be vital. Carragher was formidable even if he rode his luck. First, he ploughed into Michael Carrick in the penalty area in the first half and later seemed to catch Michael Owen around the waist as the striker broke through. He was lucky not to be dismissed.
Asked about it later in his post-match interviews, Carragher affected shock at the suggestion that he should have been sent off. He will know when he watches it again that he was fortunate: Owen was in on goal. But this was a benchmark performance from a great old pro, and there was nothing lucky about his challenge that came out of nowhere to block Wayne Rooney's shot on 77 minutes.
The difference was that Carragher was making tackles, taking risks and, ultimately, playing a part in deciding the game. Ferdinand just seemed to abstain, especially in his half-hearted attempt to challenge Torres in the build-up to the goal. It was no coincidence that Vidic was eventually sent off for two bookable offences, when he was left to deal with the worst of it by his defensive partner.
Stretched to breaking point, United conceded a second in time added on when David Ngog ran through and slotted past Edwin Van der Sar just like, well, just like Michael Owen once did in front of the Kop.
So what about Owen? When United turn up at Anfield these days, the home fans are spoiled for choice. Once it was Sir Alex Ferguson they despised most, then for obvious reasons it was Rooney. After strenuous efforts on his part, Gary Neville inherited the mantle of hatred and now it is Owen. "Once a Manc, never a red" sang the Kop yesterday, excommunicating at a stroke the man who scored 158 goals for them.
Yes, there was hatred and bitterness in the air – as well as beach balls at both ends of the ground. And what a game, too. It was tempting to say that the difference was in the two No 9s. Torres, scoring his 34th league goal in 35 home games, was lethal. Dimitar Berbatov, with his stroppy outbursts at Antonio Valencia, was dreadful.
But United also seemed caught out by Benitez's decision to play with two strikers in an orthodox 4-4-2 formation. Paul Scholes was United's best player in the first half, but even he found himself ambushed in a dangerous position by Lucas in the 18th minute. United looked best when they got Valencia into the game, but they did not do that enough. Six minutes from the end, the Ecuadorean hit the bar when played in by Owen.
That was arguably United's best effort and it came on 84 minutes, a telling insight into the level of their performance. When Liverpool scored on 65 minutes the game was in the balance, but it was Torres who tipped it their way. Dirk Kuyt found Yossi Benayoun who played a perfect ball into the right channel for Torres to run onto. He held off Ferdinand and beat Van der Sar at the near post.
Vidic had been booked earlier for a silly trip on Torres by the touchline and there was no doubt that he would go for his second offence. With United stretched, Kuyt got away from Vidic on the halfway line and he reacted instinctively. He hauled down Kuyt as crudely as he had brought down Torres in the game at Old Trafford last season and did not bother to wait around for the red card.
Mascherano had been late on Patrice Evra in the first half for his first booking, but his second was an inexplicably late tackle on Van der Sar as the mood of the game seemed to get to him. That was before United, throwing everything into attack, fell victim to the break and Lucas played in Ngog for the second goal.
Ferguson conceded that Liverpool deserved their victory, which was remarkable given that he did not even go that far when Liverpool won 4-1 at Old Trafford last season. Maybe he senses that for all the sound and fury around Liverpool yesterday, they are still a long way from title contenders.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Agger, Insua; Benayoun (Skrtel, 90), Mascherano, Lucas, Aurelio; Kuyt, Torres (Ngog, 81). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Voronin, Babel, Spearing, Degen.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; O'Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Scholes (Nani, 74), Giggs; Berbatov (Owen, 74), Rooney. Substitutes not used: Foster (gk), Neville, Anderson, F Da Silva, Evans.
Referee: A Marriner (West Midlands).
Booked: Liverpool Mascherano, Carragher; Manchester United Evra, Berbatov, Vidic.
Sent off: Liverpool Mascherano; Man Utd Vidic.
Man of the match: Carragher.
Red peril: United's card count against Liverpool
*Nemanja Vidic was yesterday sent off against Liverpool for the third league match in succession.
13 Sept 2008: Liverpool 2 Manchester United 1 Dismissed in injury time for leading with elbow on Xabi Alonso, with game already lost.
14 Mar 2009: Manchester United 1 Liverpool 4 Brought Steven Gerrard down as the last man with United 2-1 down and 15 minutes remaining.
25 Oct 2009: Liverpool 2 Manchester United 0 Hauled down Dirk Kuyt on halfway as Reds counter-attack.
*Vidic's red card was the sixth United dismissal at Anfield in 10 years, and the fourth in six seasons.
5 May 1999: Liverpool 2 Man Utd 2 Denis Irwin sent off, 75
11 Sep 1999: Liverpool 2 Man Utd 3 ......... Andy Cole sent off, 71
15 Jan 2005: Liverpool 0 Man Utd 1 Wes Brown sent off, 65
3 Mar 2007: Liverpool 0 Man Utd 1 Paul Scholes sent off, 86
13 Sept 2008: Liverpool 2 Man Utd 1 Vidic sent off, 90
25 Oct 2009: Liverpool 2 Man Utd 0 Vidic sent off, 90
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