LIVERPOOL // While Rafa Benitez's record in the transfer market is the subject of considerable criticism, Sir Alex Ferguson tends to escape similar censure. Not for the first time, however, the Manchester United manager may be reproaching himself for the one that got away. Three years ago, United approached Atletico Madrid with a view to signing their captain. Ferguson did not pursue the deal, and he has had plenty of reasons to regret it in the two years since Benitez bought Fernando Torres.
The latest came yesterday. Liverpool and Manchester United has been the defining rivalry in English football for five decades. At Anfield, Torres turned what Ferguson had deemed, simply, the game Liverpool's way. Returning after missing two games with a groin injury, Torres prospered, even in the absence of his usual sidekick, the sidelined Steven Gerrard. One chance brought one goal and a lifeline for Liverpool's season.
After 65 minutes, Yossi Benayoun slid a pass beyond the United defence. Torres, in his trademark position on the shoulder of the last defender, accelerated on to it, held off Rio Ferdinand and lifted his shot into the roof of the net. After both teams were reduced to 10 men following the departures of first Nemanja Vidic and then Javier Mascherano, David Ngog garnished the victory. Its significance cannot be overestimated. Amid the talk of crisis, Benitez had received the endorsements from the managing director Christian Purslow, the co-owner George Gillett and Anfield's greatest player Kenny Dalglish.
More important, however, was the approval of his players. It was evident he retains it from their performance. Energetic and enthused, motivated and menacing, the Liverpool team provided a demonstration of Benitez's authority and his enduring ability to manage the troubled club. In the process, they averted a fifth successive defeat, which would have entailed a worst run since 1953. Instead, they find themselves four points adrift of United: outsiders in the title race, but far from no-hopers.
It was a merited victory. While Liverpool were without Gerrard, there is a case for saying United missed the injured Darren Fletcher more. While Mascherano and Lucas Leiva adopted a high-octane approach, the pair of passers Ferguson picked in his midfield, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes, threatened to be overpowered. Elsewhere in the spine of the side, it marked a return to form for Jamie Carragher. Skippering Liverpool in the absence of Gerrard, Carragher led by example, allying full-blooded commitment with excellent judgement. One challenge on Carrick led to United appeals for a penalty, but Carragher got the ball. He dovetailed with Daniel Agger to halt Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and the man who used to be Carragher's closest friend at Anfield, the substitute Michael Owen.
The scorer of 158 goals for Liverpool was granted a particularly and predictably vitriolic reception, but then this is a game to inflame passions. Even the often impassive Berbatov became sufficiently animated to be booked for dissent. It was part of a busy day for referee Andre Marriner. Vidic was the recipient of a red card for the third time in as many games against Liverpool. Already cautioned for bringing down Torres, he blocked off Kuyt to ensure an early exit.
Mascherano was the next to depart in added time, sliding in to Edwin van der Sar to collect his second caution. With Ngog adding a second, it was not enough to dent Liverpool's euphoria. In the sort of cagey affair that such games often are, chances were scarce. Nonetheless, Liverpool had the majority of them, their pressing game enabling them to operate higher up the field and their raucous support seeming to entice mistakes from United.
An energetic start had still left van der Sar unoccupied for a quarter of an hour. When he was required, however, the United goalkeeper excelled in repelling first Fabio Aurelio's free kick and then Dirk Kuyt's shot from the rebound. Then, when Lucas dispossessed Scholes to set him free, Kuyt angled his shot just past the far post. United's first noteworthy attempt was a glancing header from Rooney that Jose Reina gathered before he hd a goal correctly disallowed for offside in the third minute. Rooney had been predictably passed fit, meaning Ferguson reverted to a two-man strikeforce.
Yet Rooney and Berbatov were granted insufficient service. The right flank threatened to prove the most profitable avenue for United, pitting the speedy Antonio Valencia against the slower Emiliano Insua. Indeed, the Ecuadorian, who had scored in his two previous games, came closest to an equaliser. When Owen teed him up, Valencia's strike rattled the bar. Rather than an equaliser, however, two dismissals and a decisive second for Liverpool followed, Ngog finishing from Lucas' pass.