ON a raw, bruising night of unrelenting tension at Anfield, Paul Ince struck in the last minute to damage the championship ambitions of his old club, Manchester United, whose supporters had abused him throughout.
United, who had taken a two-goal lead through Dwight Yorke and Denis Irwin, appeared to have survived Liverpool's late surge, which included a Jamie Redknapp penalty, and the dismissal of Irwin. But then, in the last minute, came Ince, the emergency striker, to slide in and equalise. How he and the Kop celebrated.
Unwisely forgetting United's threat on the counter, Liverpool had torn into the visitors from every angle. Ince charged around midfield, Steve McManaman dribbled this way and that, Karlheinz Riedle attempted to provide a focal point to Houllier's 3-4-2-1 formation while Rigobert Song and Dominic Matteo lent some welcome width to an otherwise suffocating midfield. Song even hooked in a cross which McManaman, stretching vainfully, failed to direct goalwards.
Roared on by the Kop, Liverpool brimmed with purpose and passion but, for all their urgency, they lacked United's ability to change gear. After 22 minutes of Liverpool pressure, United struck in typically devastating and fast-moving fashion.
The goal had its roots in a foul by Matteo on the breaking Beckham. David Elleray, the Harrow official, was being wonderfully judicious in when to apply advantage and when to halt this high-speed encounter. This time, Elleray awarded United a free-kick 10 yards into Liverpool's half out near the right-hand touchline.
Liverpool's aerial vulnerability is well known among their Premiership opponents and the situation appeared ripe for a long-range Beckham delivery. Instead, the England international rolled the ball past Riedle to Roy Keane, who returned the compliment as Beckham shot off down the flank.
As McManaman sought to keep pace, Beckham's right foot swung into the ball. Crosses rarely come as well-judged and inviting as this gem from Beckham, the ball accelerating into to the forehead of Yorke at the far-post. Brad Friedel, left exposed by his slow-reacting defence, barely moved as the ball flashed past him into the net.
The speed of United's build-up and the accuracy of Yorke's execution had caught Liverpool completely cold. It is why United have never lost belief when subjected to early pressure on unfriendly soil; they know the counter-attacking qualities contained within their ranks. The only unappetising element of United's goal was Beckham's uneccessary celebratory jog past an incensed Kop.
Liverpool saw so much of the ball. United, enjoying less possession, did so much more with it. Even accounting for the absence of Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen, Liverpool's thought patterns lacked so far behind United's. Just before half-time, Beckham drilled in another cross met by Yorke. This time Friedel saved well.
Liverpool had their first-half moments, notably when Jamie Redknapp, suddenly involved, arrowed the ball towards Song at the far-post. Jesper Blomqvist, reflecting the sleeves-rolled commitment of United's players, cleared the danger.
Liverpool's defensive uncertainty was exposed again 10 minutes after the break. Again Beckham's pass caused chaos, sending Jamie Carragher and Song into a dance of dithering. Carragher flicked a boot out and caught Blomqvist, who fell to earth like a winged sparrow. Elleray pointed unhesitatingly to the spot. Mayhem ensued with players squaring up, notably Ince and Keane, with even Peter Schmeichel seeing fit to run 80 yards to add his views. Irwin, though, stayed composed, stepped back, ran in and stroked the spot-kick firmly past Friedel.
Keane replaced his ripped shirt, Patrik Berger replaced Song and the game continued, now with added spite. Scholes flew into Redknapp and Irwin took out McManaman; both United players were booked.
The noise and tension were unremitting. After 68 minutes, the lively Berger held off Stam and thundered in a shot which just cleared Schmeichel's crossbar. Two minutes later, Liverpool hauled United back into view with Redknapp's penalty.
Berger played Matteo down the left and his cross carried through to the far post. Oyvind Leonhardsen was arriving at speed but fell under Blomqvist's sliding challenge from the side. Elleray again pointed to the spot and Redknapp made no mistake with a low conversion.
The Kop's mood was lifted even further when Irwin received a second yellow card for kicking the ball away. Alex Ferguson immediately introduced Nicky Butt and Philip Neville but Liverpool's pressure told when Ince equalised, following a break by Leonhardsen.
Goals: Yorke (23 mins), Irwin (56 pen), Redknapp (69 pen), Ince (89).
Half-Time : 1-0 to Manchester United.
Booked: No Liverpool players.
Sent off: Irwin (75 mins).
Attendance : 44,702.
Team (4-4-2): Friedel, Song (Berger 56), Matteo, Staunton (Thompson 79), Babb, Carragher, Redknapp, Ince, Leonhardsen, Riedle, McManaman.
Substitutes (not used): Bjornebye, James, Ferri.
Referee : David Elleray (Harrow-on-the-Hill).
League position: 7th (51 points after 36 matches).
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