Hard labour for Liverpool

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The Independent Online
Football fans know that whatever Mr Major or Mr Blair may say, theirs will be the Premiership that matters next May. But just as the political parties have postured a good deal but committed themselves to nothing during their conferences, Manchester United and Liverpool could only flatter the Premiership's largest ever crowd at a bright and breezy Old Trafford yesterday, by going through the motions of a decisive contest.

Moments of passion were rare, with Neil Ruddock's pantomime villain appearance on the touchline provoking the most animation in the home crowd. But with Estonian-style kick-off time, the aches of international duty last week, and the burdens of European competition next, most of the players could be forgiven for a certain jet-lagged hesitancy. But probably just as potent was their knowledge that yesterday's game was far too early in the season to matter.

Sure, Liverpool would have wanted to preserve their unbeaten record, and would certainly have achieved it but for David Beckham's moment of instant daring, but at times their neat possession game looked like an end in itself, rather than a means to winning.

The absence, through injury, of Robbie Fowler may also have affected their thinking, but the continuing preference for Michael Thomas ahead of Jamie Redknapp smacks of undue caution and perhaps an unconscious acknowledgement by Liverpool that United are still the government of the day, while they are still just one of two or three opposition parties.

Last year, Fowler's four goals took four points off United but didn't affect the season's outcome. Liverpool's fans have had to settle for scraps in the battles with United - the last-game victory in 1992 which confirmed Leeds's title, and the defiant 3-3 draw at Anfield in 1994. But they know that in the ideological struggle with their fiercest rivals, only trophies count.

But it is now six years since Liverpool's last championship and being "out of office" for so long is beginning to show - they were almost deferential to United for large parts of this game, as if frightened that attacking them too vigorously would produce a damaging backlash. "They don't really cut you open," Alex Ferguson summed up aptly, words that Major might say of the Labour party.

United were, in their own way, as guilty of caution as Liverpool, but with Ferguson's eye on Europe next week, that was perhaps understandable and his players followed his orders not to be provoked by Liverpool's keep-ball.

"This game wasn't as important to us as next Wednesday's [against Fenerbahce in Turkey]; we can always catch up in the League," Ferguson spin-doctored to good effect as if yesterday was a mere by-election.

Liverpool's manager, Roy Evans, clung to the "if you don't put the ball in the net" consolation, but a suspicion lurks that his team's inability to turn possession into goals in the games that matter may yet condemn them to another term in opposition next May.