Van Persie the difference again as United punish slow-starting Liverpool
Manchester Utd 2 Liverpool 1:English football’s most illustrious rivalry produced yet more regrets at Old Trafford but this time they originated from a wildly fluctuating contest only.
Brendan Rodgers rued Liverpool’s failure to turn up until the second half and Sir Alex Ferguson Manchester United’s inability to score “three or four” when in the ascendancy. Ferguson, at least, had the consolation of inching closer to title No 20 at the expense of his fiercest foe.
Old Trafford was on edge with Ferguson frantically tapping his watch when Howard Webb called time on a spirited Liverpool recovery and a United victory that yet again demonstrated their in-built tendency to avoid the easy route. For almost an hour the league leaders, ahead through Robin van Persie’s 21st goal of the season and an accidental first from Nemanja Vidic, gave credence to Ferguson’s claim that he does not look at Liverpool’s league position these days, such was their superiority over the men from Anfield.
The half-time introduction of Daniel Sturridge and an overdue tactical tweak from Rodgers altered everything, however, but the belated impetus and threat from Liverpool fell short of recording a significant comeback. Regret ultimately came second to relief for Ferguson. His Anfield counterpart has still to beat a team in the top half of the Premier League this season and only when Rodgers abandoned his favoured 4-3-3 to match United’s 4-4-2 did Liverpool prosper.
It was Ferguson’s tactical and selection choices that worked from the start, with Ashley Young tireless on the right flank until suffering a knee injury that resulted in him leaving the stadium on crutches and Michael Carrick the decisive influence in midfield. All the focus on the duel between Van Persie and Luis Suarez was undermined by the lack of support Liverpool gave their outstanding forward. He must have looked on enviously as United offered the Dutchman and others opportunity to have sealed three points by half-time.
Rodgers had promised bravery in possession and intent from Liverpool but there was a huge disparity between the manager’s words and the actions of his players until the second half. The visitors were strangely passive in the face of United’s superior passing and a shape that enabled Ferguson’s team to dominate Liverpool’s three-man midfield.
The breakthrough typified United’s superiority on the ball as they waited patiently for an opening then produced a devastating attack led by Carrick. Shinji Kagawa, Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley all combined to release Evra down the left and when his cross arrived hard and low across the area Van Persie escaped Daniel Agger to convert past Jose Reina.
Liverpool’s response was non-existent in an attacking sense and Cleverley was inches away from doubling United’s lead with a left-foot volley from Allen’s weak defensive header.
The greater reprieve arrived on the stroke of half-time when Rafael was released in behind Glen Johnson by Carrick, stumbled, but squared for Van Persie who back-heeled past Reina. Skrtel blocked on the line and it required a brave stop from the Liverpool keeper to prevent Kagawa converting the follow-up.
Rodgers had to act at the interval and introduced Sturridge alongside the isolated Suarez while matching United’s formation. The effect on the Liverpool performance was immediate yet the size of their task increased when Vidic inadvertently headed United further ahead early in the second half. Van Persie produced an inviting free-kick, after Skrtel had been booked for pulling down Welbeck when clear, and Evra sent a free header past Reina at the far post. Forensic replays, however, showed a final touch off Vidic’s forehead had diverted the ball under the keeper’s arm.
Liverpool were offered a route back within three minutes when Steven Gerrard seized on a careless pass from Cleverley and forced David de Gea into his first genuine save of note. De Gea could only parry and Sturridge reacted quicker than Rafael to the loose ball to convert his second goal in two Liverpool appearances since his arrival from Chelsea.
Finally the away section had reason to hope. Sturridge twice hit the side netting and the fit-again Fabio Borini volleyed just wide from 20 yards after coming off the bench. Sturridge then blazed over after Rafael had failed to clear under pressure from Suarez.
“It was desperate at times,” admitted Ferguson.
– Guardian Service