Johnson Carragher Skrtel Konchesky
Maxi Meireles Cole
Berbatov 42' 59' 84'
Gerrard 64' (pen) 70'
Liverpool, you are trying to break my heart.
Two-nil down and all was lost. Liverpool had gifted United the lead near the end of a tepid first half when man-marking failed on a corner, then Berbatov doubled his tally right before the hour mark with a stunning individual goal. But somehow, they reeled us back in: a Gerrard penalty – yes, Liverpool again won a spot kick at Old Trafford – and free kick within the span of six minutes saw Liverpool level. But John O'Shea somehow stayed on the pitch when fouling Torres to set up Liverpool's equalizer. And he's the one who provided Berbatov's winner, for the Bulgarian's hat-trick. Life is not fair. This sport is not fun.
Liverpool set up as expected, focused on keeping the shape and keeping United off the score-sheet. Packing the midfield with Poulsen, Gerrard, and Meireles (who again played further forward than the skipper), Liverpool created absolutely nothing in attack – with Johnson's 25th-minute shot wide the half's only attempt on goal – but United's frightening moments were limited to Nani's missed sitter in the 16th minute despite the Portuguese winger targeting Konchesky (and diving at every possible opportunity).
But then man-marking saw Torres out-muscled by Berbatov and Konchesky unable to help from the near post to give United a barely-deserved lead going into the break. As per usual, Liverpool were marginally more cohesive after the interval, but Berbatov doubled the lead with a brilliant bicycle kick, back to goal and controlling the ball before rifling it into the top of the net, after Konchesky gave Nani – who had hit the post two minutes earlier – too much space to cross.
At that point, it looked like Liverpool were on their way to another City-esque embarrassment. Which made for odd viewing when they were level ten minutes later once Torres sprung to life. First, Evans clumsily fouled the striker after Cole's throughball found El Niño in the box, with Gerrard sending Van der Sar the wrong way from the spot. Six minutes later, with United reeling, Meireles split the defense with a pass aimed for Torres, only to see O'Shea – the last defender – haul the striker down at the top of the area. Webb, who had been "favorable" to Liverpool until that point (any ref who dares give the opposition a penalty at Old Trafford is "favorable), only brandished yellow. Gerrard's free kick made its way through the wall thanks to Fletcher creating a gap, but you just knew O'Shea staying on the pitch would come back to haunt Liverpool.
Even though United were on the ropes, Liverpool couldn't take advantage, and the home side began penning the ball in the opposition half. Hodgson showed ambition, and made the right decision, in bringing on Ngog for the uninspired Maxi moments before the penalty, but once the sides were level, Liverpool's 4-4-2 formation (as Jovanovic also replaced Meireles in the 79th) allowed United more time in the middle of the pitch. And in the 84th, Berbatov made them pay. Yes, that languid misfit. Who's now a United cult hero.
Once again, United was given too much space on the flanks with Konchesky and Jovanovic sucked inside, and Berbatov out-jumped a static Carragher to head in O'Shea's cross. Despite Liverpool's priorities so far this season, the defense lost this game. Berbatov deserves a massive amount of credit for his performance, but two of those goals were regrettable to say the least. Carragher and Konchesky, as well as Torres' man-marking on the corner, should come in for the most criticism.
It's only been five games, and yes, era of turmoil off the pitch, new manager, etc., but this loss means it's Liverpool's worst start to a league campaign in 18 years. There were some poor performances in addition to the two soft goals – Maxi was awful, Poulsen had shaky moments, and no one in Liverpool's backline inspired confidence – but this was still one of Liverpool's better displays in the league, even considering the lack of attack outside of those six crazy minutes. Yes, that's not a heart-warming sentiment, but it was never going to be an easy game. Nearly every team is on the back-foot at Old Trafford, and Hodgson has focused on making the team disciplined and stingy, not pushing players forward. That just broke down at two terrible moments which United took advantage of, and those involved in the breakdowns have to bear the blame. And it wouldn't be Liverpool vs United without the controversy of O'Shea not sent off to add the expected kick to the crotch.
The positives were the mental fortitude needed to haul the team back into the game, created by Liverpool's talismans: Torres won both the penalty and free kick, and Gerrard converted both. The captain was Liverpool's man of the match, while Meireles also had an impressive league debut considering circumstances and opposition. It was surprising to see Cole on the left, and he wasn't nearly as involved as when in behind the striker, but his runs created space for Konchesky to get forward (pity that his crosses were awful, but all of Liverpool's crosses were awful; Maxi and Johnson were just as guilty) and he provided the pass that won the penalty.
This is gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, and demoralizing. Liverpool were second-best for long stretches, but it still feels like a point lost, a much-needed point that could have raised spirits immensely. However, if Liverpool can replicate the 15 or so minutes following United's second – again delivering a better performance after halftime – there might be light at the end of the tunnel. At least on the pitch.