Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Kuyt Gerrard Maxi
Sigh. I wish I were surprised.
Instead of delirium, a dream start through Torres (who else) scarily evoked memories of going ahead against Chelsea in the CL last season before losing 1-3. And it proved true, despite the game settling into the usual war with multiple talking points. As if it’d transpire any other way.
Within five minutes, a quick counter through Gerrard and Kuyt found the Dutchman in space on the right, sending in a picture-perfect cross to find Torres wide open between Rio and Neville. Heading practice, one-nil.
But it didn’t take long for United to equalize, naturally through Shrek, and not without a mound of controversy. Insua gifted possession to Valencia, and when Mascherano couldn’t keep up with the winger, committed a foul similar to Vermaelen’s sending off yesterday. As feared, Valencia posed an absolute handful.
Masch’s yellow could easily have been red. But that penalty could easily have been a free kick, with contact clearly starting outside the box. And despite Reina saving Rooney’s penalty, the rebound fell fortuitously for England’s Greatest Hero™. If I’m honest, I’d rather the penalty and yellow instead of a red card, but I’d far rather a free kick and yellow, which it could have been were it not for Howard Webb wearing Manchester Red today.
Just like in two of the last three meetings, the team that went ahead first only to concede an equalizer spent most of the time on the back foot as United look to press their advantage. With scads of possession, they limited Liverpool to few and far between counters, but rarely tested Reina in the own right. Park’s 23rd minute free header wide from nearly the same position as Torres’ goal was either side’s best chance since scoring. It was United/Liverpool. It wasn’t going to play out in any other way.
Unfortunately, the second half continued to tilt in United’s direction. Liverpool found it hard to claim the ball, let alone retain it. Even if Liverpool’s goal had been untroubled, when the announcers stated United had two-thirds of the second-half possession, you knew it’d be a matter of time. That it took less than 30 seconds was the only surprise.
It came through Park, United’s best player (yeah, not Rooney!), making clear why Ferguson loves him in big games. He got forward from his role in United’s 4-3-3, created the other best chance of the first half, and scored a stellar diving header from Fletcher’s right wing cross after Neville sucked the defender with an overlapping run.
From there, United were content to sit back and stifle Liverpool, limited to two solitary chances, both missed by Torres, both coming when Gerrard was able to find space on the right to center, in the 62nd and 90th. He tried to take a touch with the first, allowing Ferdinand to clear, and completely fluffed the second, popping it up where Benayoun could only send a tame header straight at Van der Sar. United never looked like getting a third for the nail in the coffin, but Liverpool rarely looked like equalizing.
To be bluntly honest, Liverpool lost to a better team, and I expected it. The early Torres strike lifted spirits, but United were worthy winners, in better form, with a stronger squad, and with a massive grudge to avenge. Liverpool were never going to do the double over United in consecutive years where Manchester could win the title in both.
Once again, I’ve drawn the formation up as 4-2-3-1 almost out of convenience, although it clearly was the base formation. But as we’ve seen in recent games, the side’s become a bit more flexible, to its benefit. When defending, it was a standard 4-4-2, with Gerrard on the same line as Torres and the wingers supporting the fullbacks instead of vice versa. In attack, especially on the break, it was a lopsided 4-3-3, with Kuyt higher and Rodriguez sticking nearer to Lucas and Masch.
When the substitutions came around the 75th, it was simply a more attacking 4-2-3-1, with a front four of Babel, Gerrard, Aquilani, and Torres. And while I was pleased to see both Aquilani and Babel, neither could change the game as hoped, and (although there’ve been few appearance to go by) I’m coming to the conclusion that Aquilani needs to start to have an impact.
Regardless, the game was lost in two areas: being outnumbered in midfield and down Liverpool’s left. The platform of Fletcher, Carrick, and Park were excellent, nullifying Lucas and Mascherano’s nullification, although aided by Mascherano’s early yellow that shackled him. And as feared, Valencia gave Insua a torrid time, not helped by Rodriguez playing increasingly narrow and Agger trying to get forward when possible.
The uphill climb for fourth has certainly gotten steeper, but we shouldn’t have been counting on points here, as fatalistic as that sounds. Fourth place wasn’t lost today, no matter what tomorrow’s papers say. Liverpool was and still is contingent on others dropping points. Both Spurs and City still have to face United, as well as each other and the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal, while Villa’s been as unconvincing as Liverpool of late and frequently ends the season on a low note.
At most, Liverpool can only drop points in one or two matches over the next seven. Anything more than a solitary loss or two draws will make the climb impossible. Five wins and two draws, achievable over the run-in, would leave Liverpool on 68 points, which is what Arsenal took for 4th last season.
But the razor’s edge has gotten that much finer, just as we’ve come to expect throughout this season.