Liverpool spoiled Manchester United's Christmas arrangements yesterday and, for the moment at least, a championship hat-trick does not look such a foregone conclusion.
A free-kick from Danny Murphy shortly before half-time not only ended United's two-year unbeaten home run in the Premiership but offered Arsenal an opportunity to close the gap at the top to three points at Tottenham tonight.
A lot of statistical dust was swept away by yesterday's result. It was Manchester United's first home league defeat since losing 3-2 to Middlesbrough on December 19, 1998, and the first time they had failed to score at home in a Premiership match since a goalless draw with Newcastle United on November 8 the same year.
For Liverpool victory was especially sweet. They had not won at Old Trafford since 1990, when on the way to their last championship, and had not beaten United home or away in the Premier League for five years to the day.
Liverpool won yesterday because, having taken the lead, they showed the discipline in defence which has sometimes been wanting this season and were exceptionally well served in midfield by Steven Gerrard, who thoroughly upstaged Roy Keane in the matter of commanding the ball and consistently turning defence into attack.
Gerrard enjoyed solid support from Igor Biscan, newly arrived from Dinamo Zagreb and justifying his inclusion at the expense of Gary McAllister with a display of unflustered tackling and passing that belied the passions that always accompany this fixture. With Nick Barmby busy and neat, and Emile Heskey's ability to hold the ball increasingly important in giving the defence relief from United's pressure, Liverpool won with less angst than they might have expected.
"Winning here is always special," said Gérard Houllier, for whom this was a unique experience. "But it doesn't mean we are as good as Manchester United, not yet. They are on their way. We are just starting."
Nevertheless yesterday's victory could hardly have been better timed for the Liverpool manager. Only a week ago Houllier had been heavily criticised after Ipswich won 1-0 at Anfield because he started the match with the in-form Heskey on the bench.
Manchester United may be without their leading scorer, Teddy Sheringham, when Ipswich come to Old Trafford on Saturday but that will not be by choice. The damaged hamstring that kept Sheringham out against Liverpool could force him to miss the holiday matches and yesterday, with Andy Cole also unfit and Dwight Yorke suspended, United, for all their resources, had to scratch around for any sort of strength up front.
Sir Alex Ferguson began with the idea of Paul Scholes playing off Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but keeping possession with his back to goal is not the Norwegian's natural game and against the combined defensive strength of Sami Hyypia and Stéphane Henchoz it never looked like working.
Later Scholes dropped deeper, with Ryan Giggs moved into the middle and, eventually, Ferguson brought on two of his younger attackers, Jonathan Greening and Luke Chadwick, to try to break Liverpool down. But all that happened was the dismissal of Chadwick after 80 minutes for ending a 50-yard wrestle with Vladimir Smicer by pulling down the Czech a couple of yards outside the penalty area when he had a clear run to goal. It was United's first sending-off at Old Trafford since Solskjaer's dismissal against Newcastle in April 1998.
While Ferguson conceded that the presence of any of his missing strikers would probably have made a difference up front he re fused to blame attacking weaknesses for the defeat. "The performance was nowhere near the level we normally expect," he said. "The quality of our passing was very disappointing and if you don't play to the standard we expect here you'll get a disappointing result. It happens."
The rarity of such a happening, rather than any richness of entertainment, was the principal interest of yesterday's game, which was largely a matter of Liverpool responding to the frequent breakdowns in United's movements with counter- attacks that were seldom pressed home with much conviction, apart from a short period around half-time when Houllier's side scored their goal and might have had three more.
With Keane, again in an oddly diffident mood, and Nicky Butt dominated by Gerrard and Biscan from the outset, United were always going to find it difficult to achieve their familiar rhythms but Liverpool did not create a proper scoring chance until the 42nd minute, when Scholes cleared a header from Heskey off the goal-line following Murphy's corner.
In the next minute Gary Neville, with plenty of time to control and clear a bouncing ball just outside his own penalty area, chose to fist it down Gaelic football fashion. Then, after Barmby had run over the ball, Murphy curled the free-kick around an ill-positioned defensive wall and inside the right-hand post with Fabien Barthez nowhere in sight. In doing so Murphy became the first Englishman to score against United this season.
With Giggs having seen a rare United shot easily saved by Sander Westerveld, Owen was then let down by a poor first touch after Heskey had sent him clear at the other end. A minute into the second half Owen missed again, this time hitting the crossbar after Gerrard, Barmby and Markus Babbel combined to turn United's defence on the right.
Another minute and the shot from Solskjaer which Westerveld turned wide proved to be the closest Manchester United came to extending their unsullied home league record into a third year. Their passing remained, from Liverpool's point of view, a sweet sorrow and with Chadwick's dismissal Murphy's law applied to the end.
Now it is up to Arsenal, who visit Anfield on Saturday, to give the Premiership a bit of unexpected though welcome top-spin.
Man Utd (0) 0 - 1 (1) Liverpool
Barthez; Brown, Irwin (Chadwick), Neville, G, Silvestre; Beckham, Butt (Greening), Keane, Scholes; Giggs, Solskjaer.
Westerveld; Babbel, Carragher, Henchoz, Hyypia; Biscan, Gerrard, Murphy (McAllister); Barmby, Heskey, Owen (Smicer).
Referee: M. A. Riley (Leeds)
Manchester United: Silvestre (71)
Manchester United: Chadwick (89)
Manchester United: 10
Manchester United: 2
Manchester United: 6
Manchester United: 4
Manchester United: 0
Manchester United: 9
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000