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United suffer double setback as Liverpool hand old boy title reins

LIVERPOOL did their former manager, Kenny Dalglish, a huge favour yesterday by beating Manchester United to leave Blackburn six points clear at the top of the Premiership with eight games left.

The day could hardly have gone worse for United and their manager, Alex Ferguson, who will be without captain Steve Bruce for four matches, including the FA Cup semi-final, after the defender was booked for a foul on Jamie Redknapp, the scorer of the 25th-minute opening goal.

The caution takes Bruce over 41 points which means an appearance before a Football Association disciplinary committee who recently suspended Ian Wright for four games after he reached the same total.

To rub salt into Bruce's wounds, he deflected Steve McManaman's 85th-minute shot past Peter Schmeichel for the goal that put the outcome beyond doubt.

Ferguson hates losing to anyone but losing to Liverpool would have put the United manager in the darkest of moods last night. "We didn't deserve any more than we got," said Ferguson. "We did not play to the form we can and did not pass the ball well. We needed to win this one."

Almost as big a talking point as the result was the omission of £7 million Andy Cole

Blackburn, who end their League programme at Anfield, are now 4/11 favourites to win the title and are helped by the fact that opponents will still raise their game more against United than Rovers. Liverpool were proof of that yesterday.

Liverpool would much rather their former favourite Dalglish win the title with Blackburn than see United complete a hat-trick of championships. The home fans even chanted "Dalglish" as proof of their championship allegiance.

Almost as big a talking point as the result was the omission of £7 million Andy Cole. Ferguson said the striker picked up a slight thigh strain in training on Saturday and was not 100 per cent fit, although he was on the substitutes' bench.

Perhaps it was a tactical ploy with Ferguson protecting Cole from the public reality of his decision. As Liverpool play three central defenders, maybe Ferguson thought it best to play only one striker - Mark Hughes - and give United extra bite in midfield with Brian McClair operating just behind the Welshman.

If this was the case it did not work. Paul Ince and Roy Keane - who may replace Bruce in the centre of defence when he is suspended - never got a grip in the middle of the park, where Redknapp and John Barnes dominated the first half.

Cole, who scored four times for Newcastle against Liverpool last season, replaced Lee Sharpe at half-time as Ferguson effectively admitted Plan A was not working and reverted to a more orthodox 4-4-2.

The striker did not play like someone not fully fit - in fairness he suffered from a lack of service from his flank players -but few will be convinced that his initial omission was due to an injury.

The main problem for Roy Evans was how to replace the suspended Rob Jones at right-back because he has no natural replacement.

The Liverpool manager brought in Mark Wright - "we call him Lord Lucan," said Evans - for his first start in almost a year and moved John Scales to the right side of defence.

The former Wimbledon defender adapted well to a role he has not played since his early days with the Dons and kept a tight grip on Ryan Giggs, whose crossing still lets him down at crucial times.

Liverpool had not lost three consecutive homes games since 1963 and they were not about to let United have the pleasure of inflicting this piece of history upon them.

There had been few chances before Redknapp's superbly-taken opener. Ince missed his tackle on Ian Rush and the ball ran to Redknapp. The midfielder skipped past Denis Irwin and shot through Gary Pallister's legs and past Schmeichel from 15 yards.

Schmeichel produced a brilliant save in the 36th minute to push McManaman's shot for a corner while Stig Inge Bjornebye was only inches wide with a shot.

United rarely threatened David James. The nearest they came to scoring was in the 55th minute when Mark Hughes headed the ball back to Giggs, whose shot flew just too high. Hughes then had a snap shot saved.

With five minutes remaining Michael Thomas centred from the right and McManaman's shot hit the hapless Bruce and wrong-footed Schmeichel.

Three points for Liverpool but in many respects an even bigger victory for Blackburn.

Copyright - The Daily Telegraph 

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