Liverpool's need for a goalkeeper of championship-winning potential was again embarrassingly obvious at Old Trafford last night.
Two mistakes by Brad Friedel led to the penalty from which Denis Irwin gave Manchester United the lead and when Karlheinz Riedle did find the United net in the second half, Peter Schmeichel having half-saved Patrik Berger's shot, the goal was disallowed because the German was standing offside.
Paul Scholes's well-struck shot from 15 yards 11 minutes before the end then erased memories of United's supine display at Arsenal last Sunday.
United had to hope that a fine Thursday evening in September offered them more than a damp Good Friday in April, when Liverpool had had the better of a 1-1 draw despite losing Michael Owen to a red card for bookable fouls on Schmeichel and Ronny Johnsen.
That result had marked the beginning of the end of United's chances of winning the Premier League title for a fifth time in six seasons. From then on Arsenal were always going be champions.
Liverpool had the opportunity last night to regain the present league leadership. But they had only won once at Old Trafford in a dozen visits and were facing a United side in urgent need of a response to Sunday's 3 0 defeat at Highbury.
The response of Alex Ferguson was the make three changes. Last night the United manager restored Ole Gunnar Solskjaer alongside Dwight Yorke in attack, leaving Jesper Blomqvist on the bench, replaced Nicky Butt with Scholes in midfield, and moved Gary Neville to centre-back alongside Jaap Stam with brother Phil coming in at right-back. By doing this Ferguson gave his defence a better chance of coping with Owen's pace.
Liverpool invariably know what to expect when they come to Old Trafford and last night it was no different, early waves of United attacks down both flanks accompanied by a barrage of crosses. For a time Liverpool's defenders dealt competently with these and the nearest United came to taking an early lead was when Friedel held Roy Keane's intended drive across the goalmouth after Giggs had lobbed Beckham's corner back beyond the far post.
Liverpool needed to impose their own patient, possessive pattern on the match and for that to happen they had to get hold of the game in midfield. This was never going to be easy, given the authority shown by Keane and Scholes from the outset, and Liverpool were still seeking regular contact with Owen and Riedle when they fell behind after 18 minutes.
The goal followed the sort of chapter of accidents not entirely unfamiliar in the present Liverpool side. First Friedel allowed a low shot from Solskjaer to slip through his arms for a corner, taken by David Beckham. Then the American goalkeeper met Beckham's kick with a weak punch which saw the ball dropping short towards Scholes and McAteer, who promptly handled it away from the United player.
Irwin's penalty set Old Trafford a'roar and although Jamie Redknapp's free-kick soon had Schmeichel hurtling across goal to push the ball away from the top left-hand corner of his net it was hard to escape the feeling that a crucial initiative had been surrendered unnecessarily.
Steve McManaman found it hard to make an impact on the match although a spat with Keane left no doubts about his passion for the occasion. Manchester United, meanwhile, had slipped into a more carefully-controlled mode, covering their backs against Liverpool breakaways.
One of these, five minutes before the interval, saw McManaman lay the ball out to McAteer, whose cross-cum-shot from the right was punched out by Schmeichel with rather more force than his opposite number. Schmeichel did even better in first-half stoppage time, somehow keeping out a drive from Ince which had taken a big deflection off Stam.
A few minutes earlier Stam had expressed an urgent desire to take something off Ince after being pushed in the chest by the Liverpool player as Redknapp, having fouled Scholes, became the sixth yellow card of the opening 45 minutes.
A sweetly-timed passing movement could have brought United a second goal two minutes after half-time. With Liverpool's defence caught square, Yorke sent Giggs through but instead of shooting he set up a chance for Solskjaer, who dragged the ball wide.
Owen, one felt, would have snapped up either opportunity in his sleep but the young Liverpool striker was still only getting glimpses of goal at the other end.
Two well-timed tackles, first from Gary Neville then from Stam, denied him shooting chances early in the second half.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; P Neville, Stam, G Neville, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Scholes (Butt, 88min), Giggs; Yorke, Solskjaer (Cole, 69).
Liverpool (4-4-2): Friedel; McAteer, Carragher, Babb, Bjornebye; McManaman, Redknapp, Ince, Berger; Riedle (Fowler, 72), Owen.
Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).
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