MANCHESTER // Crazy and dysfunctional were the words an angry Sir Alex Ferguson had deployed on Friday. He was discussing the Football Association's disciplinary procedures and Steven Gerrard's availability for yesterday's match. However, the same adjectives might have been applied to Manchester United's recent record against Liverpool, not least for a man as partisan as their manager. For Ferguson, logic was restored yesterday. Wayne Rooney and Ji-Sung Park struck to end a run of three successive defeats against Rafa Benitez's side.
The consequences could be cathartic. Because, while Ferguson glowed with satisfaction, securing three points had a triple benefit. Defeating the despised rivals increased United's chances of winning the title and diminished the likelihood of Liverpool securing fourth place. The subtext is the quest for the 19th title. For Ferguson, United's natural place is at the summit of English football. His club may be just seven games away from dislodging Liverpool on the roll of honour. Ferguson had claimed before the match that he felt "a twinge of sympathy" for Rafa Benitez. That was not apparent, not least in an altercation on the touchline. He deals in schadenfreude, not sympathy.
But he possesses a team with his own appetite for success. United ground out a victory on a day when their fittest and fastest players, from Rooney to Darren Fletcher to Patrice Evra, put in the sort of shift that delights managers. "For periods of the game we played very well, for others we had to dig and concentrate," Ferguson said. As United were workmanlike, and given the cliche that the title race can be a marathon rather than a sprint, it was fitting that the indefatigable Park provided the decisive touch yesterday.
It has been a feature of United's season that their players have proved themselves chameleons. Rooney, who scored for the 33rd time of the season, but the first time in 16 hours against Liverpool, is one example; midfielders who have operated in defence another; Park, rebranded as the bridge between Rooney and his teammates a third. The central role is a new berth for him. From it, however, Park exerted an influence. Scarcely known for his aerial prowess, he had nonetheless managed two headers at goal before delivering the winner. It was significant, too, that the goal came from a move on Liverpool's left flank, a profitable route for them while Benitez's side ensured the middle of the pitch was congested.
In the 60th minute, Rooney spotted Fletcher in space on the right and picked out the Scot. Granted too much room to cross, he bent a ball in for Park to beat Glen Johnson to head it in. United's equaliser had come coated in controversy. A driving diagonal run from Antonio Valencia was taking the Ecuadorean towards the penalty area when Javier Mascherano tugged his shirt. Contact began outside the box. Referee Howard Webb concluded it ended within it and pointed to the penalty spot. While Pepe Reina hurled himself to his left to keep out Rooney's effort from 12 yards, the rebound fell invitingly for the Scouser to score.
Comebacks are a United tradition, but they rarely begin this early. That completed a fraught, frantic first 12 minutes. What followed was a tactical impasse until Park's intervention. "A tight game, very close," said Benitez, whose side were well drilled. Besides defensive solidity, the match had begun with further reminders of last season, when rapid breaks proved so effective for Liverpool. In the fifth minute, they sprung a quick counter-attack. Fernando Torres backheeled the ball to Gerrard. The captain sent Dirk Kuyt away on the right wing and the Dutchman's cross was headed in by Torres, who had escaped Gary Neville's attentions.
It was the first league goal Uni-ted had conceded at Old Trafford since December and an illustration of Torres's ability to intimidate them. Yet a match that began so well for the Spaniard ended with a miscued shot that skied up in the air. It produced a chance for the substitute Yossi Benayoun, but it was symbolic nonetheless. His powers seemed diminished after a crude challenge that earned Nemanja Vidic a yellow card. For Liverpool, the result represented a kick in a particularly painful place: Old Trafford.