United hail new Schmeichel

Taibi recovers from shaky start to inspire champions to thrilling triumph after Cole is sent off
Click to follow
The Independent Online

FIVE GOALS, including two into his own net by poor Jamie Carragher, Andy Cole sent off, five other bookings and mistakes galore at both ends. If the animated conversation between Ryan Giggs and Mickael Silvestre, one of United's two debutants, just before kick-off was intended to convey the basics of Premiership football to the young Frenchman, it could hardly have been adequate preparation for the non-stop game of rollerball which followed. "These games are getting more and more exciting," Alex Ferguson said. "Both teams express the traditions of their clubs by playing attacking football."

FIVE GOALS, including two into his own net by poor Jamie Carragher, Andy Cole sent off, five other bookings and mistakes galore at both ends. If the animated conversation between Ryan Giggs and Mickael Silvestre, one of United's two debutants, just before kick-off was intended to convey the basics of Premiership football to the young Frenchman, it could hardly have been adequate preparation for the non-stop game of rollerball which followed. "These games are getting more and more exciting," Alex Ferguson said. "Both teams express the traditions of their clubs by playing attacking football."

The second new boy, Massimo Taibi, was helped in negotiations with his defence by an interpreter behind the goal. The cries of "dodgy keeper" from the Kop, where they know about such things, clearly got lost in translation. Having flapped hopelessly at a deep cross from which Sami Hyypia headed Liverpool back into the game, the £4.5m import from Venezia pulled off a brilliant double save early in the second half as Liverpool hurled themselves forward on to the increasingly hard-pressed United defence.

"Massimo learnt today what Peter Schmeichel learnt in his first home game against Leeds United," Ferguson said. "Big Peter came out, missed a cross by three yards and went on to become a great goalkeeper."

Silvestre, who also cost £4.5m from Internazionale, looks an equally significant addition to United's ranks. "Absolutely outstanding, aggressive and quick and though he played at left-back today, I think his best position is centre-half."

Given the freedom David Beckham was afforded by Dominic Matteo in the first half, Gérard Houllier, the Liverpool manager who had tried to persuade his countryman to come to Anfield not Old Trafford, was more than justified in his interest. Such was Beckham's control in every department other than his temperament, Liverpool were forced to reshuffle their formation for the second half to cut down the space on the wings exploited so effectively by him and Giggs. They were 3-1 down at half-time and their passionate followers demanded a positive response.

Only an injury to Nicky Butt and the departure of Cole for lashing out at Rigobert Song - "Going for a Song" as one wag remarked - spoiled the champions' day, though the sight of three blue-shirted United players hounding the referee, Graham Barber, after Cole's dis- missal was a salutary reminder of the meanness of spirit which underlies United's success. Already deprived of half a dozen squad members through injury, denied the services of both Taibi and Silvestre for the first phase of the Champions' League, even United's well-upholstered squad is starting to fray at the edges. "We've got a real problem for Tuesday, particularly in midfield," said Ferguson.

When the dust had settled on a tumultuous counterpoint to England's midweek discord, United could add another little footnote to their ever-lengthening list of credits. A sixth win in seven games marks the best League start in Ferguson's 13 years at the club, a sobering statistic for the gaggle of title challengers who traditionally ben- efit from United's early stutters.

Liverpool could hardly be faulted for effort, but basic defensive errors cost them dear. "If you make mistakes against United, you pay cash," Houllier said. United would accept nothing less. Patrik Berger was twice to blame, giving the ball away before Giggs crossed for the first of Carragher's two own goals after four minutes and then allowing Beckham time and space from a throw-in just before half-time. Realising his mistake too late, the Czech Republic international clipped Beckham's heels, conceding a free-kick from which Carragher, once more, bundled the ball over his own goalline under pressure from Henning Berg.

A trademark Beckham cross, emphatically headed home by Cole, had put United 2-0 ahead after just 20 minutes. Effectively, that seemed to be the game over until Hyypia's header revived the Kop's spirits. Had Barber or either of his assistants, wired for contact with each other for the first time in the Premier League, spotted a blatant handball by Butt from a corner soon after, Liverpool might have pulled themselves level from the penalty spot.

But, as Houllier acknow-ledged, the third goal just before half-time proved decisive. "I know what's going wrong," said the Frenchman. "We feared the low crosses too much and defended too deep, instead of pushing up and leaving space for the goalkeeper to come out."

The arrival of Vladimir Smicer for the second half, in place of David Thompson, signalled the counter-attack. With one eye on the Champions' League, United tried to reduce the tempo. But it is not their style. Taibi saved full length from Smicer's volley from 10 yards and, from the corner, blocked a point-blank header from the otherwise anonymous Robbie Fowler with his feet. But with 20 minutes left, Liverpool reduced the deficit, Berger compensating for his early slackness with the most accomplished goal of the day, tucking home Matteo's pass with his left foot.

Four minutes later, Cole, who was booked for dissent in the first half, reacted to Song's attentions with a gratuitous kick. "A bit unfair," claimed Ferguson. "Song was kicking lumps out of him." Puzzlingly provocative all afternoon, Beckham was lucky not to join him after reacting to a robust challenge by stamping on Jamie Redknapp's leg. Though he was the object of the Kop's less savoury attentions, Beckham is showing worrying signs of reverting to pre-World Cup petulance. It spoiled a masterly display which, for England's sake at least, came three days too late.

Michael Owen, brought on for the last 20 minutes, almost fashioned an equaliser from an acute angle, but United's thin, dark-blue line held firm against Liverpool's increasingly incoherent finale. "I feared they would come back at the death," added Ferguson, memories of last year's late draw at Anfield still fresh in his mind. "Very entertaining," said Houllier. Silvestre might have recovered his breath by Wednesday.

Comments