LIVERPOOL, for some promotional stunt, placed a sofa in the centre circle before kick-off at Anfield yesterday but that was as comfortable as they made their guests from along the East Lancs Road. The moment the sofa was removed, Liverpool tore into the champions, inflicting on them the sort of high-speed, highly productive raids that used to characterise United, who played like strangers.
Michael Owen was at his prolific best, poaching two fine goals, while Emile Heskey was again outstanding, attacking and tracking back with equal gusto in a match marvellously handled by Graham Poll. Liverpool were particularly blessed that United, in neighbourly mood, left the back door obligingly open. The Kop, revelling in the travails of Wes Brown and Mikael Silvestre, chanted: "There's only one Jaap Stam."
Traits traditionally associated with the real United, the hunger, accurate passing and assertive finishing, were certainly disguised yesterday. Sir Alex Ferguson even questioned the appetite of his serial winners, hinting that prolonged exposure to success may have softened their edge, an affront to everything the Glaswegian workaholic stands for.
"Maybe they have been there too long," said Ferguson of his players. "Maybe the success is taken for granted. It is something we will have to address. Lille identified that for us last week. Lille are like Liverpool, who hunted for the ball and played with hunger. That work-rate is a great foundation for success. It's not always quality that wins a game of football. Liverpool worked harder than us and the individual errors that have haunted us all season continued."
Maybe Ferguson could inflict the ultimate punishment on his team: field them all again tonight in the Worthington Cup at Arsenal.
In a fashion familiar to anyone who has been in a dressing room this early on a Sunday morning, United's players performed as if they had been introduced only moments before. Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, paired at the front of a 4-4-2 formation, lacked understanding while United's central defensive alliance was even more error-prone.
Brown's woes began after 31 minutes when, pressurised by Heskey, he failed to cut out Vladimir Smicer's through ball. Owen darted into the gap and the rest was inevitable, the ball faded firmly and sweetly around Fabien Barthez. Nine minutes later, Brown brought down Owen, Dietmar Hamann rolled the free kick sideways and there was John Arne Riise unleashing a drive that touched 70mph on its way into the net.
Four minutes later, Riise and company were in the dressing room, watching Thompson scribbling on a flip-chart. "I wrote Tottenham Hotspur 3, Manchester United 0 at White Hart Lane after 45 minutes," Thompson reflected on United's famous 3-0 down, 5-3 up. "I told the players they would have to show concentration - and United promptly scored!"
So they did, David Beckham shooting in left-footed after Riise had misjudged Denis Irwin's cross. But Liverpool, exuding the determination Ferguson had expected from his own players, came back immediately. Within 45 seconds, Riise threw long into the area, Heskey flicked on over Barthez and Brown and Owen headed in.
It was difficult to know who was more culpable: Barthez for coming so far out or Silvestre for being outjumped by Owen. The Kop had no doubt: "Dodgy keeper" they sang at the world and European champion.
Ferguson rang the changes, introducing Dwight Yorke and finally Paul Scholes, but United's manager could not alter his side's poor passing and strange lack of passion. Liverpool's commitment was encapsulated by Hamann winning a ball that appeared destined for Quinton Fortune.
For the second time in a week, Hamann was terrific, shielding the back four with all the diligence he showed in Tuesday's defeat of Borussia Dortmund. The German's awareness of his defensive responsibilities allowed Danny Murphy to hound United further up the pitch; the great Juan Sebastian Veron was too often bested by Murphy.
Liverpool's fourth consecutive defeat of United, their best string of results against the old foe since 1910, extends their unbeaten run under Thompson to five victories and one draw.
Gerard Houllier, who laid the foundations for Liverpool's re-birth, was saluted by the Kop with cards forming the French tricolour and his initials before the game and his name was sung again at the end. By then, Houllier was phoning Thompson to congratulate him.
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