Manchester United 0 Liverpool 3
Back in the eighties, United frequently found themselves up against a Liverpool side with title aspirations while we found ourselves struggling and well off the pace. Invariably, such scenarios saw the Reds dig deep and produce a one-off performance of substance to get something from the game, and very often victory. We hoped for something like that today. What we got was a tactically naive, spiritless performance that handed the initiative to our opponents from the off and saw the most abject capitulation at Old Trafford of a season in which such capitulations have become depressingly familiar.
Although it took over half an hour for Liverpool to take the lead, the goal followed a long period of dominance where the away side, having found control of the game easy to acquire, looked in no mood to relinquish it. In games like this, it remains to be seen whether United can afford the luxury of fielding both Mata and Januzaj: with two players out wide who can’t track back. My belief is they can’t. Liverpool found it very easy to block off the supply route to the two men and, with the opposing full backs pushing on up the field, the Reds were unable to get any sustained grip on the game. Mata constantly drifted deep and inside in a bid to get the ball, while Januzaj was largely anonymous.
More than once Sturridge found himself in a position to unsettle the United central defenders with his pace but it was through the threat of Suarez that the goal game. The Uruguayan sought to turn Rafael and in doing so the Brazilian’s hand got in the way and the result was a clear penalty. While there was an argument that Rafael, who’d just received a yellow card, ought to have gone off, Gerrard made no mistake from the spot to give his side a deserved lead. United did find something after the goal. Januzaj had been switched to the right by now and, against Flanagan, began to look more dangerous. He linked well with Rafael and good movement between the two brought a chance for Rooney, who hammered his shot against the hands of Mignolet.
If this suggested a United onslaught after half-time, the reality couldn’t have been more different. Jones made a clumsy challenge on Allen in the area and this brought a second penalty for the visitors, if one somewhat less clear-cut than the first. This time De Gea went the right way but Gerrard’s kick was precise and found the corner of the net.
Soon after United were denied a penalty call themselves when a cross from Rafael glanced off the dangling hand of Glen Johnson: although the offence may have been more difficult to detect for the officials, there was no question it was in the same category as the one that brought Liverpool the lead. Perhaps the sense of injustice, plus the denial of a less convincing appeal from Rooney soon afterwards, was what brought United to life: certainly they began to attack Liverpool with a sustained purpose that was absent in the first period.
It was to provide only a temporary lift for the home fans. The Reds were unable to attack with any real sharpness and the result was inevitable from very early in the second half. We were denied the ignominy of a Gerrard penalty hat trick when he hit the post from the spot after Vidic had been penalised, correctly, for bringing down Sturridge. Vidic received the red card that Rafael had escaped in the first half, presumably the last in the series of reds the defender has received against Liverpool. One ignominy only replaced another, though, when Suarez, who’d been denied minutes earlier by a superb save from De Gea, found himself through on goal again and this time made no mistake to make it 3-0, an emphatic scoreline and one that even the most hardened United fan will find it hard to dispute reflected the balance of play.
When United lost at Liverpool earlier in the season, there was very little in it; here, sadly, it was evident that the gulf between the sides has been allowed to grow to a chasm. While I’ve always been in the ‘give Moyes time’ camp, certain elementary issues can’t be ignored: Liverpool’s manager can take ordinary players like Henderson and Allen and use them so effectively, while a player like Mata finds himself wandering the field attempting to get into the game; Liverpool’s camp had evidently given some thought to the tactics the game required, while United played, not for the first time this season, like a group of strangers. There are questions to be answered, and after this they’re going to get very loud indeed.