By Ian Doyle at Anfield for Daily Post
WHILE Gary Neville was deciding whether he should indeed have taken up one supporter's generous birthday gift of a half-eaten burger thrown from the Centenary Stand, a jubilant Liverpool squad were en route to a celebratory slap-up meal on Saturday.
It probably won't be the last time United must make do with the scraps left by Rafael Benitez's side in the near future following further compelling evidence that the balance of power in the north west is tipping once again towards Anfield.
The sight of Sir Alex Ferguson delving ever deeper into the depths of desperation was merely the final confirmation.
"Liverpool can be that way," said the disgruntled knight as he vainly attempted to explain away Manchester United's humbling defeat. "They play for five minutes and win a game. That's the way they are."
Even by Ferguson's increasingly bizarre standards, it's a statement that will take some beating. The irascible Scot had been surprisingly generous in his praise of Benitez before the game - nothing to do with his previously unbeaten record against the Spaniard, of course - but the mask soon slipped once he had been comprehensively outsmarted by the Anfield manager.
In doing so, Benitez scored his first victory over United at the fifth attempt and ended 85 years of FA Cup hurt against Liverpool's most bitter foes by guiding his team deservedly into the last eight of the competition.
This victory will resonate long after the quarter-finals have been played, however. After Arsenal were vanquished in midweek, United's chastening experience must surely silence those who doubt Liverpool can provide a genuine threat to Chelsea's domestic supremacy in the coming seasons.
It was another step in United's slide and Liverpool's upward curve. The signs had been there at Old Trafford four weeks ago, when a dominant Liverpool were only undone by an uncharacteristic lack of belief and some shoddy last-minute defending to gift United an undeserved triumph.
There was no chance of either happening at Anfield on Saturday. From the moment Harry Kewell dumped chief irritant Neville on his backside on the touchline in the third minute, the force was with Liverpool and the confidence that has been gradually rebuilt following their United-initiated blip started to manifest itself.
It had been 108 years since Liverpool had last sampled a home FA Cup win against their Mancunian chums. Forty-nine days is a blink of an eye in comparison, but has seemed like a lifetime as Benitez waited for one of his senior strikers to find the target.
You had to go back to New Year's Eve for the last goal scored by one of the forwards the Liverpool manager could call upon on Saturday. Peter Crouch headed the winner in a 1-0 win over West Bromwich Albion that day, and it was the £7million who ended the collective drought with a similar contribution at the weekend to etch his name into Anfield legend.
Liverpool had been lambasted for failing to properly defend Rio Ferdinand's injury-time header at Old Trafford a month ago, so it was ironic when in the 19th minute a short corner from Steven Gerrard was whipped in from the right by Steve Finnan towards Crouch, who evaded man-marker Nemanja Vidic to powerfully head home via Edwin van der Sar's hand and the keep-er's left-hand post. Perhaps United should have employed zonal marking.
Mind you, there was no Ferdinand to contend with on Saturday. The England international had cried off with a tight hamstring - not, as one wag suggested, because he'd forgotten it was an early kick-off - and that forced United manager Ferguson into a tactical rethink. It was at this exact point Liverpool gained the upper hand.
While Ferguson blundered his way from one mistake to another, Benitez was spot on with almost every decision he made. United opted to flood central midfield with Ryan Giggs, Darren Fletcher and Kieran Richardson, but the untried triumvirate were over-powered by Dietmar Hamann and Mohamed Sissoko.
Hamann in particular was immense. In for the injured Xabi Alonso, he had been hailed by his manager beforehand as the man for the big occasion, and he delivered a consummate performance of controlled aggression and oozed the "game intelligence" of which Benitez is so fond. The offer of a contract extension his 22nd appearance of the season has triggered is a nobrainer.
Sissoko, energetic as ever but increasingly disciplined, was the ideal foil for the experienced German and the pair dictated proceedings with Gerrard tucking in from the right flank to provide extra drive.
Liverpool had heeded Benitez's instruction to start with a high tempo and were by far the better side in the opening period, van der Sar's outstanding save to palm wide a Kewell header from Gerrard's free-kick merely handing them the corner from which they scored.
With Crouch, back after missing the last two games with a heel injury, leading the line well and being expertly supported by a encouragingly spritely Fernando Morientes, United were fire-fighting from the off with a passionate Anfield crowd already sensing a famous win.
Liverpool's dead-ball delivery against Arsenal in midweek had been poor, but another Gerrard set-piece should have further extended the lead 10 minutes before the interval, the skipper finding Finnan unmarked at the far post only for the right-back to volley into the side-netting from six yards.
It would have been ample reward for the Irishman, outstanding in negating the wide threat of both Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney and who was in the right place to intercept Neville's searching cross with Ruud van Nistelrooy waiting to pounce.
That represented United's best chance; an indictment of how Liverpool, with the central defensive pillars of Sami Hyypia and Jamie Carragher rendering van Nistelrooy almost anonymous, had comfortably dealt with the expected second-half charge from the visitors.
Indeed, after Giggs had blasted over from range, when Ronaldo fired tamely at Pepe Reina in the 86th minute it was the first and only save the Spanish goalkeeper - back from suspension to replace the benched Jerzy Dudek - was asked to make.
It was by no means a classic encounter - absorbing at best - but with the stakes so high, that was no surprise. Chances were at a premium, but nevertheless Liverpool's margin of victory should have been greater.
Crouch had a half-hearted penalty appeal turned down in the 31st minute after being shoved by Vidic, but television replays revealed referee Howard Webb had erred when awarding a free-kick on the edge of the area for Giggs' clattering challenge on Kewell two minutes later; the foul was marginally inside the box.
The official had been taken in by Ferguson's clever pre-match comments to protect his players. Four Liverpool players were booked to United's three, although Webb did have the good grace to give Neville a card on his birthday with 16 minutes remaining.
That couldn't save United, though. While Liverpool were the epitome of defensive solidity, the visitors were anything but. Even Wes Brown, the pick of a poor bunch, seemed intent on scoring in his own net and new signing Vidic, who chose Old Trafford over Anfield in January, endured a testing afternoon, fortunate to see Crouch narrowly fail to profit after a mix-up with van der Sar and then forced to haul down Luis Garcia as the Spaniard spotted a gap in the United back line.
Liverpool's grip of proceedings didn't loosen even when they were briefly down to 10 men as Crouch was stitched up following a clash of heads with Brown. It's never easy against United, but this was about as easy as it gets.
The sickening injury to United substitute Alan Smith in the final moments was an unwanted footnote to a game that understandably petered out somewhat during injury time.
For Liverpool, this win - a third successive 1-0 triumph - was the ideal preparation for the resumption of Champions League duties tomorrow night. United? They don't have a game this midweek. Clearly, Saturday will not be the last time Benitez starves United of success.
Liverpool Player Ratings
JOSE REINA: Little to do for the Spanish goalkeeper, but he mopped up tidily when required. Score 6
STEVE FINNAN: Provided attacking assistance on the right flank while also keeping Unit-ed's wingers quiet. Should have scored in the first half. Score 7
JAMIE CARRAGHER: Solid performance from the centre-back, with vital interceptions and brave tackles. Score 7
SAMI HYYPIA: Organised the Liverpool defence well, keeping United chances to a minimum. Score 7
JOHN ARNE RIISE: Excelled early on marauding down the left flank and offering support to attacks. Score 6
STEVEN GERRARD: Led by example on the right of midfield with a typical box-to-box display. Score 7
DIETMAR HAMANN: Vital role protecting the back four, passing intelligently while breaking up United attacks. Man of the match. Score 8
MOHAMED SISSOKO: Showed energy and enthusiasm and was the perfect foil for Hamann as Liverpool's defence dominated. Score 7
HARRY KEWELL: Appeared revitalised and had a fascinating duel with Gary Neville which finished even. Score 7
PETER CROUCH: Superb header for the goal, while providing good touches when holding up the ball. Score 7
FERNANDO MORIENTES: Glimpses of the class which he showed at Real Madrid, but tired after plenty of first-half endeavour. Score 6
LUIS GARCIA: On for Morientes, could not do much as Liverpool were happy to defend towards the end. Score 6
Manchester United player ratings:
EDWIN VAN DER SAR: Superb save prior to the goal, then almost kept Crouch's header out. Score 7
GARY NEVILLE: Gutsy performance from the right-back, showing determination. Score 6
WES BROWN: Maturing as a centre-back and did little wrong throughout despite the aerial threat of Liverpool. Score 6
NEMANJA VIDIC: Uncompromising in the tackle but his marking was poor. Score 5
MIKAEL SILVESTRE: Did not support attacks well down the left flank. Score 5
CRISTIANO RONALDO: Saw plenty of the ball but struggled for end product. Score 6
DARREN FLETCHER: Seemed overpowered in midfield against experienced opposition. Score 5
RYAN GIGGS: Supported attacks well and had one of the few shots that threatened Reina's goal. Score 7
KIERAN RICHARDSON: Struggled to supply crosses from the left, then moved to full-back in the second half. Score 6
WAYNE ROONEY: Could do little given the service he was provided with, and often came deep to collect the ball. Score 5
RUUD VAN NISTELROOY: Rarely a threat up front. Score 6
LOUIS SAHA: On for Silvestre, toiled in attack without success. Score 5
ALAN SMITH: Replaced Fletcher, but suffered an horrific injury. Score 5
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