Manchester United 1 - 0 Liverpool
by Anthony Jones.
All good things come to an end. Liverpool's impressive run of Premiership games without defeat came to a crushing end at Old Trafford, much as Chelsea's had earlier in the season. Manchester United are a poor comparison to their own sides of the previous decade but they retain just enough quality to raise their game for the big matches. Whereas Chelsea were knocked out of their stride, Liverpool were robbed in the final minutes. Admittedly Liverpool had not created enough to claim an outright win of their own, but in controlling the game for all but the closing stages of the game, they will feel aggrieved with the defeat.
Benitez sprung a surprise in selecting Cisse ahead of Morientes in an otherwise expected lineup. Having seen the mobile pair of Vassel and Cole chase the Manchester United back four out their game in the derby, Benitez possibly hoped his speedster could do the same. Wes Brown returned to the United backline, a decision intended to offer more solidity at the back whilst Evra continued at left back. Ryan Giggs was a surprise selection in the centre of midfield with Fletcher shifted out to the left.
Reflecting the significance of the game, there was a real tension about the first half which was reflected amongst the fans of both sides and on the field where the play at time became incredibly tetchy. It was a half of few opportunities with Liverpool controlling midfield but never fully looking like exploiting it. It wasn't until the tenth minute that anything resembling a chance occured. Harry Kewell, who was Liverpool's most threatening player all game, climbed above Neville and Evra on half way to guide the ball towards Gerrard. Kewell took a knock for his troubles, but it seemed worthwhile as Gerrard carried the ball forward. However the ball held up on the poor Old Trafford pitch which forced Gerrard to shoot early and he pushed his effort wide.
Liverpool were continuing to work the ball around well whilst Manchester United were struggling in midfield. However Liverpool's attacking play was floundering in the final third as Peter Crouch found himself consistently isolated whilst Djibril Cisse appeared on a different wave length to his team mates. Steven Gerrard who had a quiet game produced possibly the pass of the game as he curled the ball with the outside of his right foot down the inside left channel to find the run of Cisse. Having stolen a yard on his marker Cisse was in a position left of goal to strike the ball, yet instead of swinging his left foot he instead tried to flick the ball with his right and missed it completely. A rare moment of cohesion between Cisse and Crouch saw the best chance of the half created. Momo Sissoko moved across the box before flicking a ball up to Cisse who was just inside the area. Cisse nodded the ball down into the path of Crouch who had made an excellent run but he was forced to wait for the ball to settle and Brown was across to block the shot.
With the exception of a difficult chance from a tight angle for Van Nistlerooy in the closing seconds, United had not got close to the Liverpool six yard box. Boosted by their overall control, Liverpool pushed harder in the opening exchanges of the second half to look for a winner. However despite constantly threatening Kewell was well marked by Neville whilst Gerrard switched to the centre, with Sissoko switching to the right. Sissoko had received a booking in the first half after squaring up with Richardson, though it's likely neither would have been booked if Richardson hadn't shoved the Liverpool midfielder. Sissoko's switch probably owed a little to Benitez being concerned about the player receiving another booking but also to bring Gerrard more into the action. The change had little impact on the sides defensive structure as United continued to struggle to find a way through, it did however further limit the attacking options.
Peter Crouch was forced out of the game with an injury midway through the half to be replaced by Morientes. The injury to Crouch probably gave Cisse a little extra time on the field but he rarely looked like taking advantage of it. Their were opportunities for the striker. A cross from the left found Cisse in space in the area but by the time he guided his header wide the striker had contorted himself into a poor body position. Another cross from the right was nearly guided into the net by Ferdinand under pressure from Cisse only to be cleared by the same defender. Kewell immediately volleyed the clearance goalwards only to force a great save from Van Der Sar. The rebound fell to Cisse who volleyed the ball over, his blushes saved by the linesman incorrectly flagging for offside. Cisse was eventually replaced by Sinama Pongolle but like Morientes he struggled to get into the game as the Reds visibly tired.
United created a couple of half chances as the game entered the final stages. A strong run from Rooney who was the one United player who looked capable of winning his individual battle resulted in him flashing a shot from thirty yards just wide of goal. Reina may just have got across had it been on target. Van Nistlerooy showed his ability to hold up the ball on the edge of the box before hitting a tame volley at Reina.
The game looked set for a draw and Benitez made his last change with just two minutes remaining taking off Sissoko and bringing on Kromkamp. It is a change he may wish he'd either made earlier or not at all. Having failed to take advantage of a free kick after Rooney scythed down Sinama Pongolle on the edge of the box Liverpool allowed United to attack down their left. Kromkamp clearly not up to the pace of the game lost his man and Finnan was forced to concede a foul. It wa certain to be the last significant play of the game and there was an air of inevitability about the goal that followed. A good ball into the box found Ferdinand moving between two Liverpool defenders to head home. Liverpool's zonal marking system has improved beyond recognition since the last match between these two sides at this ground. It'll no doubt disappoint Benitez that for the second time in two season his side has lost as a result of set piece goals on this ground.
Whilst the United fans will no doubt celebrate it will be Chelsea who enjoy this victory the most. Despite the result there is no doubting that for the most part Liverpool were the superior side and they remain the side more likely, albeit with slim hopes, of closing the gap on the runaway leaders. This game has also exposed the flaws in both sides. Liverpool's total domination of midfield, taking nearly 60% of the possession showed their strength but also reminded Benitez that he is short of a wide midfielder and may also need to find a partner better suited to the team orientated work of Crouch.