Kevin McCarra at Anfield
Monday February 20, 2006
Sir Alex Ferguson has always believed that the first quarry must be the local rivals. By bringing down Liverpool he found his starting point for an era of dominance at Old Trafford but this FA Cup win, achieved through Peter Crouch's goal, demonstrated that the hunter can eventually become the prey. It is Manchester United who are now being tracked.
The very most they will have to show for this season, assuming Wigan can be beaten in the final next Sunday, will be the Carling Cup, a competition that has never before been a priority for Ferguson or his predecessors. It is Liverpool who are relishing the high life, with their Champions League tie against Benfica beginning in Lisbon tomorrow and hopes renewed that they will vault over United to be Premiership runners-up.
The afternoon at Anfield turned ghastly in the 88th minute, when the substitute Alan Smith blocked a John Arne Riise drive with his right leg and then felt his left buckle under him. He had broken it as he dislocated the ankle. It will be a long time before the makeshift midfielder plays again. Unless the pain made him oblivious to the crowd, he carries with him the memory of some Liverpool fans singing gleefully about an injury that was obviously severe even at the time. Other Anfield supporters, however, did applaud sympathetically as the stretcher bore Smith away.
Ferguson's immediate feelings were of compassion but the player's absence will underline the inadequacies of the United squad. They are so ill-equipped in the centre of the pitch that they eventually abandoned that territory completely and, with four strikers in action, settled for launching long balls. José Reina never had to make a save of note.
Given the pitiful display by United, it was effrontery on Ferguson's part to complain that the contemporary Liverpool side only need to play for "five minutes" in order to win. Maybe the Scot was succumbing to a nostalgia for the dandyish Anfield teams that he once quelled with ease. United are in deep trouble if the manager cannot adapt to football as it now is.
Liverpool need make no apologies. Though Xabi Alonso was absent with a slight thigh strain, Rafael Benítez's team had complete command as the excellent Dietmar Hamann drew on all his experience while making a 22nd appearance of this campaign which entitles him to extend his contract for one more season.
"When I was six years old people were talking about the midfield as the key part of the pitch," Benítez said. "It's the same now. If you control the midfield you control the game." The physical supremacy was accentuated because, at the outset, the visitors merely had the natural ball players Kieran Richardson and Ryan Giggs in the centre.
It was on Liverpool's turf that Roy Keane played his last match for United, with a strong showing in September's goalless draw. Even if the breakdown in Ferguson's alliance with the captain truly was beyond repair the manager ought still to have had a better stock of players for that area of the side.
The club is left pining even for Phil Neville, casually off-loaded to Everton in the summer. While it was beyond prediction that Paul Scholes' season would be ended by blurred vision, the midfield is the area in which the dwindling of United has been most marked since the 1999 Champions League success. The sort of rumours that link Ferguson with moves for Mahamadou Diarra, of Lyon, or River Plate's Javier Mascherano come very late indeed.
Benítez has kept a constant grip on the practicalities. He was presumably aiming a barb at Chelsea when he spoke about the pragmatic nature of his squad building but Ferguson might wince as well.
"When we decided to sign Peter [Crouch]," the Liverpool manager said, "we were not talking about signing the best striker in the world. We were thinking about signing the striker we needed. It is the same with Momo Sissoko, Bolo Zenden and Pepe Reina. Sometimes another team with more money will spend big on players that they will not use. We try to use the money that we have on players that we need."
In a scrappy match strewn with bookings Liverpool imposed themselves to greater effect. United were so addled that an ineffective Wayne Rooney was even miscast as a winger after the interval, with Louis Saha brought on in the middle of the attack. It was easy for Benítez's team to retain a lead seized in the 19th minute.
Edwin van der Sar had turned a Harry Kewell header behind and, when Steven Gerrard played the corner short to Steve Finnan, Crouch moved away from his marker Nemanja Vidic, an uncertain deputy for the injured Rio Ferdinand, and converted the full-back's delivery with a header that crossed the line after the goalkeeper had tipped the ball on to the inside of the post.
Finnan was later to miss with a volley and the admittedly meagre supply of chances was the exclusive property of Liverpool. Benítez's side are not particularly sharp inside the penalty area but they could afford minor failings against an abject United.
Man of the match Steve Finnan - The full-back took the game to United even if he did miss a decent chance. His composure was apparent when he ferried the ball out of his own six-yard box.
[See Liverpool's line-up at LFChistory.]
Edwin Van der Sar, Wes Brown, Gary Neville, Mikael Silvestre (Louis Saha), Nemanja Vidic, Darren Fletcher (Alan Smith (Ji-Sung Park)), Ryan Giggs, Kieran Richardson, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Ruud van Nistelrooy.