by Teo Teng Kiat
Scorers: Gerrard 68′; Hernandez 80′
A pulsating encounter between England’s two most successful clubs ended with the spoils being shared on a sunny afternoon, as a late equaliser from Javier Hernandez cancelled out Steven Gerrard’s opening goal for Liverpool, as Manchester United ended a run of three straight away defeats at Anfield.
United had lined up with a rather defensively-minded team, as Phil Jones stepped into midfield alongside the returning Darren Fletcher, as Park and Young filled the slots on the side of a midfield quartet. Giggs was given the licence to roam behind Danny Welbeck, with the result being a strong bench that contained Nani, Rooney, Anderson and Hernandez, amongst others. The depth United had was further emphasized by the omission of Valencia and Berbatov from the matchday squad altogether.
Meanwhile, Liverpool welcomed the return of their inspirational skipper Steven Gerrard back to the starting line-up, as the midfielder looked to make an impact after being out injured for the better part of the last six month. Upfront, Luis Suarez, the chief tormentor in United’s 1-3 defeat during the corresponding fixture last season, was supported by the workhorse Dirk Kuyt.
Perhaps taking confidence from United’s defensive set-up, the home side pressed hard from the start of the game. Downing and Enrique took every opportunity they could to send in crosses from the left, but chances were few and far between for both sides.
A few efforts from range went wide, with Ferdinand handling Suarez well, and his counterparts in the Pool defence doing likewise to Welbeck. The best chance for the Uruguayan hitman came when a shot was deflected to his feet and he turned Evans inside the box, only to send a left-footed shot straight against De Gea. The striker should have done better, as should have Jones, when earlier on, he headed a sumptuous cross from Evra into the side-netting at the far post.
After a rather even first half, the second half got underway with United having the better of the earlier exchanges. Young sent a low effort from distance skidding wide, while his freekick from 25 yards out had Reina scrambling to take control of the loose ball.
Liverpool though, started to get back into the game, and a goal arrived under some contentious circumstances. Adam rode a couple of challenged and hurtled towards the United goal before Ferdinand looked to have brought him down just outside the area. Replays showed though that the United centreback only had the slightest contact with the midfielder, who went down looking like he was shot. Gerrard’s subsequent low freekick crept in the at near post, after Giggs inexplicably opened up a gap in the wall by moving away from his position.
Sir Alex responded by bringing on the cavalry. Nani and Rooney were sent off, before Hernandez joined them as well. There were penalty shouts for each team too, but it was really more of a ball-to-hand case for both Enrique and Evans. United’s equaliser arrived with ten minutes left to play. Nani’s superb inswinging corner was flicked on by Welbeck at the near post, and Hernandez broke free of Skrtel to head home just in front of the goal, with his first touch since coming on.
The last ten minutes were largely Liverpool all the way, as they took advantage of the openness of United’s formation. First Kuyt, then Henderson, drew great stops from De Gea, as the Spanish custodian kept the score level. Two corners from the home side created pandemonium in the box as United desperately hung on, with Rooney denying Suarez a certain winner as the determinedly headed the ball away just as if the Pool striker looked to have a free header a metre away from goal. Henderson then glanced a Downing cross over when he really should have scored, and with that went Pool’s chance of winning the game as the final whistle came soon after.
The immediate feeling after the game was that we had come out of this with a very good point. Although it was true that Liverpool didn’t create too many chances apart from their late second-half flurry, it was clear that United put in a sub-par performance. When your goalkeeper and centreback are candidates for the man-of-the-match award, it is a rather good indication of which side had the better of the game.
I thought it was a big ask for Jones to step into the midfield in such a big game, but credit to the lad, he did reasonably well. The problem with the midfield was that it lacked creativity, and it certainly didn’t help that Giggs and Young didn’t put in good performances. The Welshman was stifled by the midfield trio of Adam, Lucas and Gerrard, leaving Welbeck isolated upfront, while Martin Kelly coped admirably with Young on the left. Park was his usual industrious self, but the difference was clear when Nani came on, as the crosses started to come in from the left.
Liverpool had a field day raining in balls from their left wing, and with Enrique and Downing both very well capable of good deliveries, it was a constant source of danger for us throughout the game. This also had the effect of restricting Smalling’s forays forward, meaning both sides of our attack were compromised.
Ferdinand though, showed his class at the back. Coming back from injury, he slotted in impeccably, and worked superbly with Jonny Evans, who had a good game himself. Tasked with marshalling Luis Suarez, the classy centreback gave his tricky opponent no change at all, and was imperious throughout the whole 90 minutes. David De Gea, meanwhile, continued to prove his doubters wrong; apart from those good saves, he also exuded confidence and authority when coming for the many high balls and crosses put in by the Pool players and dealt with them well, which should further boost his morale.
While it would seem baffling at first to bench so many key players, perhaps Fergie’s decision could be explained by the fact that there is a testing trip away to Romania in the Champions League coming up, as well as the fact that Nani and Hernandez tasted quite a bit of action for their respective countries over the weekend. However, I still think Rooney would have been mentally strong enough to start the match despite the media attention over his red card for England and match-fixing allegations about his father. He worked well with Welbeck when paired together, so perhaps this gamble didn’t pay off. It was also curious to note the absence of Berbatov, and no reason of any sort has been given for this.
Liverpool, to be fair, gave us a hard time, and played some good football at times. While United will still be seething over Adam’s dive that led to the freekick, we have to thank Hernandez for his opportunistic header which helped us to gain a point. His movement as the ball came in was top-drawer, heading into the box and then turning to run a full circle back in as Skrtel was lost, to make space for himself to score.
The performance was not pleasing, but the tenacity of the players meant that we salvaged a point at a difficult ground to go to. What is certain is that there needs to be improvement next weekend, where United clash with City in a top-of-the-table Manchester derby, which should prove to be an intriguing and intense match.
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