Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Benayoun Kuyt Aurelio
His armband proved he was a Red, Torres, Torres
‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ it said, Torres, Torres
We bought the lad from sunny Spain
He gets the ball and scores again
Fernando Torres, Liverpool’s number nine
Magic. I guess it was just the game Liverpool needed to break that ignominious losing streak. And once again, Fernando Torres – who wasn’t at 100% on his return from injury – notches the game winner, but that can’t detract from the total, awesome team performance.
The first half almost felt like a return to the bad old days. Make no mistake, Liverpool was playing its best football in five games, but the home side couldn’t take the chances presented while they were on top, and it felt like a matter of time before United became United. Thankfully, Liverpool’s dominating style never let United be United.
Rooney looked like posing a handful early on as he had the ball in the net after three minutes, but was clearly offside. Liverpool had the upper hand soon after, and had three excellent opportunities to go ahead, beginning with Lucas, put through on the right in the sixth only to see a poor shot deflected wide. Once again, the oft-criticized Brazilian midfielder shone against testing opposition; it’s against less-potent sides that the Mascherano/Lucas pairing gets exposed.
The other two chances came in quick succession. Aurelio tested Van der Sar with an outstanding free kick in the 16th before Kuyt toe-poked just wide two minutes later. It unsurprisingly got cagier soon after as United began to see more of the ball, but the away side failed to truly test Reina as Scholes and Carrick were second best in midfield.
United grasped at straws for two penalties, a 50-50 coming together between Agger and Giggs and an outstanding diving tackle by Carragher that just got a piece of the ball, before Liverpool had another good chance in the 36th. Benayoun’s cross found an opening Aurelio steaming into the box, but the Brazilian’s header was too close to Van der Sar. The best penalty shout was Liverpool’s right before halftime, when Kuyt and Berbatov battled in the box, but it’s little surprise none of the three won a whistle.
The second half saw more of the same – with Kuyt centering when shooting was the better option and a couple of shots from distance – before United upped the pressure around the hour mark. The away sides picked up a fair few free kicks, but Liverpool’s defense held firm time and time again before that man Torres embarrassed Rio Ferdinand on the break. Liverpool sprung from their own half, Benayoun found Torres between two defenders, and the striker beat Rio for strength and pace before smashing over Van der Saar at the near post. Brilliant. Just bloody brilliant.
Liverpool had a chance to double the lead in the 70th, but Mascherano was selfish on the break (for the third time in the match) and shot when Torres and Benayoun were open. At this point, it was Liverpool had 10 shots to United’s three, and deserved the advantage.
Unsurprisingly, the United onslaught came for a nerve-wracking final 20 minutes, as Nani and Owen (who received the reception you’d expect) came on for the ineffective Scholes and Berbatov. First, Nani fortunately received the ball at the back post, but could only tamely curl it to Reina. Carra had to dive to block Rooney’s fierce shot, and in the 84th, Owen held up play well and fed Valencia, who blasted off the crossbar from an impossible angle. A Carragher foul on Owen three minutes later could have seen red, but Nani could only shoot straight at Reina from the free kick and Carra escaped with a yellow.
Seconds later, Vidic got his marching orders for a second yellow, bringing down Kuyt near midfield on the break, capping the head of steam United had built up. Mascherano’s sending off in the penultimate minute of injury time, for two deserved yellows (he was a terror in midfield breaking up play, but was rash and selfish as well), was too late for the Mancs, who were exposed on the break with the last kick of the game anyway.
The influential Lucas started and set-up Ngog as he won the ball in Liverpool’s half, found Kuyt and charged through the midfield for the return ball, and released Ngog into acres of space to easily beat Van der Sar. Two-nil, and all the demons of the last two weeks exorcised. See, sometimes it’s fun to play United, even if once again, it almost gave me a heart attack.
It’s nearly impossible to pick a man of the match. There’s Torres’ fearsome winner; even at 80%, he deftly beat England’s best defender. I’ve sung Lucas’ praises throughout this review. And Carra was absolutely back to his best. He kept Rooney pocketed for immeasurably long stretches, dove for countless last-ditch tackles and blocks, and didn’t put a foot wrong, ably aided by Danny Agger.
So, are we still firing Rafa? This is why we should hesitate to write off Liverpool, despite that infernal stretch. Even without Gerrard and with Torres and Johnson just back from injury, the team had enough to deservedly beat United. Liverpool were simply the better team, and had the guile and fortitude to hold off a team that thrives on late goals.
Liverpool’s only six points behind league-leading Chelsea, even though there are still five teams ahead of them. There are definitely worries on and off the pitch, and there's definitely room for improvement. But this remains a very good team that can beat any opposition on their day.