x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Javier Hernandez rescues point for Manchester United

Wayne Rooney left out of the starting line-up by Sir Alex Ferguson as Steven Gerrard makes a goal-scoring return to the first team for Liverpool.

Steven Gerrard, right, scored against Manchester United on his first game for Liverpool since March 1.
Steven Gerrard, right, scored against Manchester United on his first game for Liverpool since March 1.

There was a time when Sir Alex Ferguson envisaged Steven Gerrard as the long-term successor to Roy Keane at the heart of his midfield. Almost six years since the Irishman’s explosive exit, the void he left is, arguably, yet to be properly filled. Long before then, however, Ferguson was robbed of any illusions that Gerrard would trade Anfield for Old Trafford.

Liverpool and Manchester United’s fierce rivalry precludes it. For a decade and more, Gerrard has been a constant in the drama. In harness with Fernando Torres, he was responsible for a high-speed evisceration of United in 2009, a 73-year low on their own turf when Liverpool won 4-1; on Kenny Dalglish’s managerial comeback in January, the captain’s lunge at Michael Carrick left his side with only 10 men for an hour. A witness for the defence, arguing Gerrard is not a dirty player, was his long-term fan along the M62, Ferguson.

The mutual admiration society, however, is between Gerrard and Dalglish and yesterday, nine months after the Scot’s return and seven since the Merseysider’s last start, the 31-year-old belatedly scored a first goal for his hero. “It was fitting he scored the goal,” the manager said. “He was everything he has been for the football club up until now.”

The fairy-tale comeback, however, it was not. Javier Hernandez ensured United departed Anfield with a first point in four seasons and meant that Ferguson’s latest contentious team selection did not cost his side their unbeaten record.

Liverpool remain six points adrift, deprived of the succour a win would have given them but heartened by the dynamism of Gerrard. Age may yet take its toll but, having overcome a groin problem that has delayed his start to the season, he retains his swashbuckling side, the blend of power and pace that adds another dimension to Liverpool and lessens the load on Luis Suarez.

If United’s choice of personnel was conservative, it was a backhanded compliment to the Uruguayan, who had tortured them in March. There was no lack of ambition from Suarez, attempting efforts from all angles, including a 50-yard shot that sailed wide. Yet for three-quarters of the game, incidents were in short supply.  

United, the inveterate adventurers, turned professional nullifiers, a policy they might have continued had Ryan Giggs not left his station in a wall, allowing Gerrard to curl the ball through the gap – the Merseysider was honest enough to admit he intended to place it over the United defenders – and defeat David de Gea. That incident apart, Ferguson’s new goalkeeper was unbeatable; Dirk Kuyt, brilliantly, and Jordan Henderson were denied winners at the end. Suarez was stopped in the first half’s only clear chance, the striker reacting with typical sharpness when Jonny Evans blocked Charlie Adam’s shot, spinning past the Ulsterman but directing his shot too near the Spaniard.

Policed by Phil Jones, Adam’s more controversial contribution came when he escaped his marker and ran at Rio Ferdinand. “There was the slightest contact but I don’t think enough to make a fella who is 12 or 13 stone fall to the floor,” complained the defender. It did not prompt Andre Marriner to reach for a second yellow card for the already cautioned defender, and Gerrard scored the subsequent free kick.

United’s response came from the replacements. Enter Wayne Rooney and Nani, followed by Hernandez. The Portuguese took the corner that Danny Welbeck met with a deft glancing header and the Mexican, arriving at pace, provided the decisive touch to turn into the net. “His record of goalscoring is outstanding,” said Ferguson. “He has just got that touch. It’s absolutely fantastic because Martin Skrtel has got his arms around him and he manages to free himself.”

United departed the happier with the point, Liverpool lamenting missed chances. “It’s a real indication when you go into the dressing room afterwards and they are disappointed they have drawn with Manchester United,” Dalglish said. Mention Gerrard, however, and the grin returned.