Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Riise
Benayoun Gerrard Mascherano Kewell
New season, same story. Liverpool dominant for stretches, not enough carved out in the final third but two good chances in the first 35 minutes cleared off the line, a goal against the run of play thanks to an error on a set piece, and Liverpool unable to break United down in search of an equalizer, with United soaking up pressure and dangerous on the counter.
The most depressing thing is that despite the money spent, and despite the free-flowing football and goals leading up to the game, it’s a script we’ve seen time and time again against United.
Until United’s goal against the run of play, Liverpool was the better team with more opportunities. But none were taken. In the 27th minute, after Carragher’s header created problems, Anderson cleared Kewell’s shot off the line, and although the rebound fell to Torres, under pressure from Anderson he put his header wide. Five minutes later, a collision between Van der Sar and Vidic allowed Torres to get a header on goal, but again it was cleared, this time by Evra.
And ten minutes later, United made them pay. In the 43rd minute, Giggs’s corner found Rooney unmarked at the top of the box, and his shot was turned in by Tevez, open just yards from goal when Benayoun stayed home at the far post.
The second half saw the narrative continue, with Liverpool pressing, but impotent in the final third with United defending expertly. Despite Liverpool’s time in possession, the away side probably had the best chance at a goal, with Rooney missing a sitter, found by Ronaldo on the break. United getting a second on the break, countering with Liverpool sending men forward and losing possession, was always a menace. Babel and Gerrard had chances in the last 15 minutes, but keeping in tune with the rest of proceedings, both narrowly missed the target.
At the end of the day, Liverpool wasn’t good enough, and that’s the hardest thing to acknowledge. Maybe the team gave the opposition too much respect, but there was a gulf in class between the two in the final third. United takes their opportunities; despite getting four goals against the likes of Porto, Marseille, and Bolton, Liverpool still spurns them too often top-quality domestic opposition.
It’s almost as if players are awed by United; I’m not singling people out after today, but many weren’t at the best, or even up to performances in previous matches. Liverpool did well keeping possession, and Mascherano was excellent keeping Ronaldo quiet for stretches, but none of the attack-minded players who had been in form of late had that needed bit of nous.
With the new owners watching and the much-written about summit between them and Benitez imminent, what’s clear is that despite what was spent in the offseason, United’s still spent more, and Liverpool’s still not at their level. This is why Benitez has been so adamant about the January window. As painful as it is, United is still a better team.
I don’t want to hear about zonal marking; it was a mistake that led to United’s goal, but Liverpool is far better defending on set plays because of the system. Rotation surely can’t be blamed, because there were no changes from the one that beat Marseille 4-0.
It is a bad loss, one that shows the distance between the two teams. But I have to reiterate that it is only December, as much as I don’t have very high hopes for overtaking United. Much can still happen with 22 games still left, but although this is a better side than in years past, it’s still not quite on a par with the upper echelon. This loss puts a lot of pressure on the away trips to Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge, and the Emirates.
I’ve been ignoring much of the off field turmoil between Benitez and Gillett & Hicks, and over the new stadium. But this result cannot be used against the manager in this upcoming meeting. I cannot emphasize that enough. Benitez is improving the squad, and if anything, the result shows that the team still needs improvement. Give Benitez free reign, stick to finding adequate funding for the stadium and Rafa’s purchases, and things will continue to improve.
I am utterly gutted and depressed over the result, and Liverpool's chances of being true title contenders this season. But it’s not all pessimism, despite the loss. United was admittedly a better team. But Liverpool’s a better team than last season, and the future’s not completely gray skies.