By Nathan Thomas.
Robin van Persie’s penalty kick gave Manchester United a long awaited win against Liverpool at Anfield. For the first time in five years, the Reds took maximum points off their old rivals despite having to do it the hard way after Steven Gerrard put Liverpool ahead just after half time. Rafael’s superb equaliser got United back in the hunt before RvP further cemented his reputation at Old Trafford by netting the winner late on. The score line itself tells little about the overall pattern of the game, a pattern that saw United struggle for long periods and enjoy a fair share of luck.
United’s recent record at Anfield is of constant bemusement to me and to many other Reds. The past five visits have yielded a draw and four defeats, hardly an enviable record. The current United squad is certainly not what you would call ‘vintage’, but when analysing the current states of both United and Liverpool you would think that Reds of Manchester should have little difficulty in dismantling a fairly weak Liverpool outfit. A similar state of affairs can be attributed to most other clashes in the recent past, possibly with the exception of Rafael Benitez’s final year in charge, however time and again United are overawed in midfield and struggle to string any notable passages of play together.
Sunday’s game was of no exception. United barely registered in a first half that was dominated by the home side. Other than the central defensive core of Jonny Evans, Rio Ferdinand and Anders Lindegaard, few of the United eleven showered themselves in glory. In contrast, Liverpool attacked with verve and potency, despite fashioning few clear cut oppurtunities. As pleasurable as it would have been to see, from a Liverpool fans point of view, they must wonder why their team fail so woefully to muster performances like that on Sunday on a weekly basis. Young ‘lothario’ Raheem Sterling had the beating of Patrice Evra (not that that is particularly surprising) and the ever popular Luis Suarez looked lively and caused problems for the brilliant Evans and Ferdinand.
Ultimately, though, United shot themselves in the foot by starting a stupidly predictable midfield. A midfield, which has fallen short consistently at Anfield in recent years. Four of Carrick, Giggs, Valencia, Nani and Scholes have started at Anfield in the last three of the last four visits; three games that have yielded three defeats. Each time United lost the game in midfield and struggled to cause any form of penetration. The trend continued with aplomb on Sunday as Giggs and Carrick just did not exert themselves on the game in any way, Valencia spent most of the time doubling up with Rafael in order to place a shroud over the Brazilians defensive shortcomings and Nani, the pick of the bunch, was simply awful. He was replaced at half-time by the fifth man of that aforementioned midfield quintet Paul Scholes. Thankfully, Scholes is enjoying an Indian summer, which ensures that his short comings of a few years ago have well and truly evaporated. His introduction settled things down considerably and immediately provided the previously famished Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa with more of the ball.
By this point though, United had a man advantage after Jonjo Shelvey had been sent off for a rash tackle on Jonny Evans. It was a harsh sending off, although Shelvey’s challenge was somewhat erratic, however it was no more or less erratic than that of Jonny Evans who should have received equal punishment. For the good of the game referee Halsey should probably have cautioned both and had done, instead he gave United a slice of fortune that we have not had at Anfield in recent years. He also gave United fans a further laugh at our old foes as Shelvey made a right clown of himself as he proceeded to embark on some rather vigorous finger pointing at Ferguson. Ferguson laughed it off, whilst we just laughed.
Comedy aside United’s first half performance left a lot to be desired and although it improved greatly in the second half ten man Liverpool still offered plenty going forward. This was highlighted as early as the second minute after the re-start as Steven Gerrard took full advantage of a dozy United by slamming in the opening goal after some pretty lax defending – the only jot on an other wise perfect defensive copy book. The goal seemed to spark United into life and with our conductor in chief installed in centre midfield the Reds began to offer something of a threat. A threat that paid dividends shortly after when Kagawa’s knock down was swept superbly into the top corner of the goal by Rafael to haul United level. I thought that the Brazilian’s second goal of the campaign would be the tipping point; alas, I was a little wide of the mark. Credit to Liverpool for continuing to probe and cause problems for United; however, it is inevitable that the type of performance Liverpool churned out will not be a current feature this season. Regardless, we have our own problems.
As fantastic as it was to see RvP slam home a winning penalty, a decision that in itself was debatable, it papered over some rather large cracks. It is clear United need something different in midfield and Ferguson has taken a risk in not attempting rectify that problem by spending in the transfer window when the funds were clearly available. The wily old Scot is placing a lot of faith in Tom Cleverley maintaining fitness, Anderson maintaining fitness and form and the return of a fully fit and effective Darren Fletcher. Fletcher would have been ideal at Anfield and it is games such as these where the significance of his absence is highlighted with vim and vigour. A return to form of the likeable Scot would be as important as any marquee signing; however, whether such an occurrence will materialise remains to be seen.
I could go on all night banging on about our midfield, but for tonight I couldn’t give a hoot. We have just beaten the scousers in their own back yard and frankly, I am buzzing off it. It is not often that beating teams in relegation scuffles prompt such positive feelings, so I intend to make the most of it!
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