Kelly Skrtel Agger Aurelio
Kuyt Gerrard Maxi
Giggs 2' (pen)
So much for a storybook return.
1st minute, Webb gives a penalty for Berbatov's clear dive. 32nd minute, Webb shows Gerrard a straight red for a tackle similar to one Rafael went unpunished for. Welcome to the FA Cup at Old Trafford. Somehow, it's still Roy Hodgson's fault.
In all seriousness, aside from the result, I'm actually happy. Okay, happy may not be the right word – it's a loss to the bloody Mancs after all – but we've had very few signs of positivity for a long time. The team selection, formation, style of play, and player desire were all a vast improvement on the dross we've been treated to all season long. Dalglish's substitutions were ambitious, and he wasn't afraid for slay sacred cows. Were it not for an amazingly soft – and incorrect – penalty after less than 60 seconds, Liverpool would have gotten a draw despite being down to 10 men for an hour.
Liverpool's higher back line let Berbatov in right away, but Agger made no contact and the linesman didn't flag. Howard Webb, in a far inferior position, saw things differently, immediately pointing to the spot. Webb gave Liverpool a penalty in the league meeting at Old Trafford earlier in the season. Alex Ferguson obviously wasn't going to allow him such free reign in this match, and Giggs made no mistake from the spot with a well-taken effort.
But Liverpool heads didn't drop. Unlike in every single away match we've seen this season, they didn't sit back. Liverpool pressed high, tried to play the ball out of defense, out-numbered United in midfield because of the Gerrard-Lucas-Meireles axis, and had far more possession. Liverpool were still disjointed in the final third as Torres continued to under-perform, but positives were readily evident.
The penalty was an unfair body blow. But the red card made certain Liverpool wouldn't get back into the game. And, as per usual, it's a contentious decision. Any time you go into a tackle with two feet, you're asking for trouble. But it's hard to stomach when we saw similar from Rafael earlier in the match, Gerrard got the ball, and Carrick rolled around as if he were shot. It certainly wasn't worse than De Jong's kung fu challenge on Alonso, but the World Cup final wasn't at Old Trafford.
And even with 10 men, Liverpool limited United chances. It took until the 38th minute for the Mancs to create a shot from open play – Nani's tame effort easily saved by Reina. But Evans roaming free in the box in first half injury time, heading a corner off the post, set the tone for the second half as Liverpool's 10 men tired.
Chicharito headed Fletcher's cross over in the 48th. Berbatov volleyed over after Reina could only palm a cross under pressure from the Mexican striker in the 56th. Kuszczak was called into action on an Aurelio free kick angled towards the top corner against the run of play in the 65th, but soon after, Reina had to make five saves in quick succession, somehow impossibly keeping the scoreline at 0-1.
Also heartening were Dalglish's substitutions. Babel and Shelvey replaced Maxi and the underwhelming Meireles with 30 minutes to play; that Shelvey saw action seems to confirm the high regard Kenny supposedly holds Jonjo in. And in the 77th, Ngog replaced the ineffective and jaded Torres, who – in his defense – was always going to struggle with a man disadvantage. The changes not only demonstrated an attacking intent, but a willingness to shake things up. Hodgson lived in perpetual fear of removing Torres. Dalglish gave no thought to it.
Babel had a couple of chances, forcing a save from Kuszczak from the top of the box and heading wide at the near post, but United were comfortable with Liverpool's dead legs and an extra man (or two, if we're still counting Webb). It's always painful to lose to United, but that Liverpool finally looks like a team is a bigger positive than going out of the FA Cup to that lot.
4-2-3-1 – although as much a 4-1-4-1 with Lucas often deeper than Gerrard and Meireles for those 32 minutes – was the correct formation. Kelly was man of the match, silencing Giggs and Evra for long stretches. Liverpool's defense was vastly improved, again, with Agger and Aurelio involved. Reina's string of saves was absolutely mind-blowing. Kuyt was more effective than in recent poor performances, although this type of match suits him down to the ground. But most important was the self-belief, something desperately missing for months, even after unfairly going behind and then going down to 10 men.
Gerrard's expected three-match absence – although there's a slight chance the suspension will be overturned (Liverpool will appeal) – means that Cole will probably replace him in a straight swap. It's not the end of the world in that department. And if Liverpool continue in this vein, we won't be worrying about being in the bottom half of the table for much longer.
I cannot wait for Blackpool on Wednesday. And I could not be happier that feeling's finally present after dreading matches for the last six months.