Press Association report

Andy Cole's astonishing golden goal rush rocked Anfield to its foundations as Liverpool suffered a comprehensive home defeat that could effectively spell the end of their title hopes.

The former Newcastle striker has become a scoring force reborn as Alex Ferguson earned the reward for keeping faith with the man so many United fans would have sold given half a chance.

And today Cole's diamond double - flanking a real sparkler from the right foot of David Beckham - made it 12 in his last eight games and 15 for the season.

Cole's first showed the conviction he has refound in the past two months. Bjorn Kvarme made a fearful hash six minutes into the second half and there was no looking back as Cole raced past Dominic Matteo before crashing home.

Liverpool briefly scented hope when Robbie Fowler marked his return from suspension by converting from the spot after young Michael Owen went over in the box.

But that tantalising glimpse of the promised land of victory over their fiercest rivals was snatched away as United showed the character and determination of champions.

Beckham struck the first arrow through the heart of the Kop, the sort of free-kick from 20 yards that was reason enough for his 'boy wonder' status.

And then Cole finished them off to confirm only United's third Anfield triumph in 11 seasons, a simple conversion after Teddy Sheringham had flicked on Ryan Giggs' corner.

By the end it was all so simple, Liverpool dispirited, United toying with them, their fans revelling in the moment, and the ideal preparation for Wednesday's Champions' league trip to Turin.

But for Liverpool and Roy Evans, now 12 points beyond the champions, the outlook is as grey as the glowering clouds that hung heavy over a December morning that had started full of hope.

There are fewer occasions that mean as much to the fans, and that sheer passion transmitted itself to the players from the opening minutes.

Tackles flew in with an intensity that almost had the stands shuddering, and Ferguson's decision to send Ronny Johnsen into the battleground to the surprise exclusion of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looked understandable.

Whereas United had reinforced the midfield, Liverpool missed the suspended Paul Ince, with Nicky Butt in particular winning all the battles.

On a couple of occasions the England man was just too keen in his cutting edge, rightly booked - and joined in quick succession by Johnsen and Jamie Carragher - for flattening Jamie Redknapp.

But the main difference between the sides was in confidence. United believed their working of the ball to create space would bring chances, whereas Liverpool looked to Owen and Fowler to contrive an opening.

And where Sheringham showed an aerial mastery over Dominic Matteo and Kvarme from the outset - Cole's sharpness hinting at a killer blow - Fowler looked like a man just back from a three-match ban.

Not that there was an abundance of real chances. Fowler sneaked in behind the United back line to head over from Stig Bjornebye early on, but it was the champions who threatened most.

Teddy Sheringham should have scored after his header dropped to Giggs. He half-bundled his way through, although it was actually Kvarme's interception that bounced off James' knee.

The ball to fall to Sheringham 12 yards out, but with the goal to aim at his left-footer flicked off the outside of the upright.

A minute later Pallister led a four versus three counter, his attempted ball to the screaming Beckham skewing off his foot, before Butt escaped with a finger-wagging from David Elleray after going through Jason McAteer.

It could have been red and Liverpool would then have been even more furious if, after popping up at the end of a superb length of the field move instigated by Beckham, Butt had lifted over rather than at James.

But it was Liverpool who missed the next real opening. Steve McManaman had done nothing on the right, but switched to the left he was far more prominent.

It was through that channel that the winger found himself one on one after receiving Fowler's hooked return, a chance far easier than the one he had taken at Highbury last week.

But with Peter Schmeichel confronting him, McManaman passed on responsibilty, a nothing ball inside that United hacked away. It was a mental frailty which became all the more costly when Kvarme committed his aberration six minutes into the second period to let Cole open the scoring.

United were flying, Liverpool rocking, and it might have been two within three minutes, James failing to claim, Sheringham setting up Giggs, and Matteo blocking desperately.

Liverpool needed something, and got it. McManaman skipped into space, fed Owen, and when he tumbled under the weight of a Butt challenge, with Phil Neville in close attention - Mr Elleray had no doubts.

Fowler's conversion was equally emphatic, and with Evans deciding this was the moment to send on Patrik Berger for Kvarme, Carragher reverting to the back, the pendulum looked as if it might be swinging Liverpool's way.

Cue Beckham. James did well to save his stinging right footer in the 67th minute, but two minutes later there was nothing he or any other keeper on earth could have done.

Carragher brought down Cole and Beckham stepped up to hit the ball with such precision and crispness that it was over the wall and in off the bar before James could even move.

Evans sent on Karlheinz Riedle for Bjornebye, but it was a lost cause. Cole proved that with 16 minutes left. Sheringham flicked on Giggs' corner, Cole rifled it home, and the taunting began from the United fans.

"Evans must stay" was the cruellest, followed by "It's just like watching Barnsley". But "Outclassed by the champions" summed it up. They were.

Liverpool: James, Kvarme (Berger, 60), McAteer, McManaman, Leonhardsen, Fowler, Redknapp, Owen, Bjornebye (Riedle, 72), Matteo, Carragher.

Subs not used: Babb, Harkness, Nielson.

Booked: Carragher, Redknapp.

Man United: Schmeichel, G. Neville, Johnsen, Pallister, Beckham, Butt, Cole, Sheringham, Giggs, P. Neville, Berg.

Subs not used: McClair, Poborsky, Van Der Gouw, Solskjaer, Mulryne.

Booked: Johnsen, Butt.

Attendance: 41,027.

Referee: D R Elleray (Harrow-on-the-Hill).

Copyright - Press Association

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