As Manchester and Liverpool have been rivalling one another for influence and importance since the industrial revolution, any meeting of English football’s two most successful clubs is more than just a game. But as a tale of two cities it was also a game of two halves, Manchester United’s reward for performing in both was a victory that puts them 24 points ahead of their age-old rivals.
They were able to attack in the first and forced to defend in the second. Liverpool, abject before the break and excellent after, were punished for a hapless, hesitant start. Their performance, and the game as a whole, was transformed by Daniel Sturridge, a galvanising, goal-scoring substitute but one who could not quite repair the damage done before his arrival.
Instead, as usual, the striking contributor to victory was Robin van Persie. The scorer of United’s first, provider, in part, of Nemanja Vidic’s debatable decider, he overshadowed Luis Suarez, his principal rival for the end-of-season awards.
Yet the Dutchman was aided by playing in the stronger side, just as the Uruguayan was hindered by his timid teammates who starved him of service until he was relocated to, and liberated by, a deeper role.
In comparison, Van Persie was an ever-present influence, supplied by the incisive Michael Carrick and aided by the willing running of his strike partner Danny Welbeck.
The Englishman is an erratic finisher but an inveterate trier and Sir Alex Ferguson’s surprise selection paid off. So, too, his decision to pair Vidic with Rio Ferdinand, reunited for the first time in three months, when Jonny Evans was ruled out with a hamstring injury.
In contrast, Rodgers’s initial selection, like Liverpool’s approach, was too timid. By the time he remedied his earlier errors, United were firmly in the ascendant.
Their opener followed wonderful passing. After close, combination play, Tom Cleverley found Patrice Evra. He delivered a low cross that, with a crisp swing of his left foot, Van Persie redirected precisely past Pepe Reina. Liverpool had seven outfield players back in their penalty area but the Dutchman only required half a yard of space.
By half time, as Ferguson said, his side could have been three or four goals ahead. Following an incisive pass from Ashley Young, Van Persie’s second effort was skied over the bar.
Welbeck also had a couple, one requiring a superb block from Daniel Agger, largely because Joe Allen had picked out the United striker with a poor pass. The Welshman was less culpable, but nevertheless the provider, of another opportunity when Cleverley latched on to his header to strike a rasping volley that just went wide.
Van Persie came agonisingly close, meeting Rafael da Silva’s low cross with a flick of the instep to defeat Reina but not the backtracking Martin Skrtel. His clearance struck the goalkeeper who then barged into Shinji Kagawa as the Japanese attempted to bundle the ball in.
In the end, one-way traffic did yield a two-goal lead, but only briefly. A susceptibility at set pieces has been a feature of Liverpool games and they were exposed again when Van Persie’s free kick was met by the unmarked Evra, whose header was turned in by Vidic. Replays suggested the United captain was marginally offside.
It is a damning indictment of Liverpool’s wretched first-half display that it took them 52 minutes to register a shot of any kind. The first on target, from Steven Gerrard, led them to halve the deficit, with Sturridge gobbling up the rebound after David de Gea had parried the Liverpool captain’s effort.
And, after Reina’s agility denied Kagawa a third goal, there was a sudden swing in the momentum. Galvanised by the eager, opportunistic Sturridge, Liverpool surged forward. The substitute had a hat-trick of opportunities to secure an improbable equaliser; another replacement, Fabio Borini, also came close with a thunderous volley.
So, with Ferguson deeming his side’s defending “erratic”, it made for a tense finale. Rodgers, rather ignoring the evidence of the first half, argued his side deserved a point. Yet amid myriad differences between the clubs, this is another.
United have beaten most of their closest rivals whereas Liverpool are yet to defeat a team in the upper half of the Premier League this season.
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