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Stylish Liverpool closing the gap

After the most anaemic title race since the Premiership's formation, the prospect of new blood is an enticing one. In the evolution of Gérard Houllier's Liverpool team, this performance represented a new tier of excellence, compelling evidence that, if Manchester United's omnipotence is to be challenged next season, the most durable challenge will emanate from Anfield.

There are still questions to be asked. How, for example, can new Liverpool bludgeon United into the realms of mediocrity yet take only one point from their previous league fixtures against Leicester and Derby? Consistency remains a characteristic of Sir Alex Ferguson's men that Houllier can only envy.

If the restoration job is to be concluded, the Frenchman will have to find more answers. But there are the first tantalising signs that even if United are favourites to retain the title next season, Liverpool may just ensure that Ferguson's final year is not the last hurrah everyone expects.

Meanwhile, when the story of Manchester United's seventh title in nine seasons is penned, the concession of a first league double to Liverpool since 1979 will merit little more than small print. But for all the haughty references to more pressing engagements, the plethora of players rested ahead of tomorrow's Champions League appointment with Bayern Munich - "maybe our season starts then," Ferguson volunteered - and the defiant statements that the damage was only superficial, there was no disguising that Saturday will have hurt.

For United to treat possession with such wanton disregard was an oddity in itself, but to be out-hustled as well as out-manoeuvred is a matter worthy of more serious contemplation. In front of Bayern's scout Alexander Weiss, they had the chance to send out the right signals and failed.

By stark contrast Liverpool will approach Thursday's Uefa Cup quarter-final in Barcelona with chests swelling from the best kind of psychological preparation. The Nou Camp can be a bear pit for travelling sides, but if Houllier's players can reproduce this sort of performance (and Steven Gerrard is fit) they need not feel any sense of inferiority complex.

Not for the first time, and probably not the last, Gerrard was the driving influence of this Liverpool triumph, an indomitable presence on the right of midfield. His 16th-minute haymaker, a sure-fire contender for goal of the season, was an object lesson how to strike a long shot and watching him dominate Roy Keane et al just confirmed that Liverpool have a future England captain on their payroll. Possibly, even, this season's player of the year.

By the time Robbie Fowler scored four minutes before the interval, capitalising on Gary Neville's slip to finish beautifully from Gerrard's cross, Liverpool were looking so dangerous, so in control, it was tempting to believe it was all a trick of the mind.

Even after Danny Murphy had procured a second yellow card for raking his studs along Denis Irwin's calves on 69 minutes, having been booked for an earlier indiscretion against Nicky Butt, United's forays into home territory were predominantly of the limp-wristed variety. In truth, Liverpool held on with a modicum of fuss.

"We've known for the last few years that it's up to us to close the gap," said Fowler. "It's taken time but now there's the first chink of light at the end of the tunnel. We can't go over the top but maybe, just maybe, we will be up with them in a year or so."

For the sake of the Premiership, a competition that has been stagnating since the turn of the year, it can only be hoped that the renaissance continues.

Liverpool (2) 2 - 0 (0) Man Utd
Gerrard (16)
Fowler (41)

Liverpool
Westerveld; Babbel, Carragher, Henchoz, Hyypia; Berger (Barmby), Gerrard (Owen), Hamann, Murphy; Fowler (McAllister), Heskey.

Manchester United
Barthez; Brown, Irwin (Silvestre), Neville, G, Neville, P; Beckham, Butt (Scholes), Keane; Giggs, Sheringham (Chadwick), Yorke.

Referee: G. Poll (Tring)

Attendance: 44,806

Bookings
Liverpool: Murphy (35)
Manchester United: Neville, P (29)

Sent off
Liverpool: Murphy (35)
Manchester United: None
Free-kicks
Liverpool: 8
Manchester United: 8

Corners
Liverpool: 4
Manchester United: 2

Goal attempts
Liverpool: 15
Manchester United: 9

On target
Liverpool: 6
Manchester United: 3

Hit woodwork
Liverpool: 1
Manchester United: 0

Offsides
Liverpool: 6
Manchester United: 4

© Guardian Newspapers Limited

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