Liverpool Echo report

RAFA BENITEZ got it wrong on Saturday. Badly, badly wrong.

Asked pre-match what his team had to do to finally inflict defeat on Man United, the Reds boss replied: “If we score first, we can win”.

By that token, Benitez – like pretty much everyone else inside Anfield – must have thought the wait for victory over the reigning champions was set to continue when Carlos Tevez gave United the lead after just three minutes.

The bookies lengthened their already generous odds on a home win, the visiting supporters in the away end gloated and looked forward to a stroll to victory and the majority of Liverpool fans started to fear yet another ritual humiliation at the hands of their most hated rivals.

Each of these reactions was apt as in going a goal behind Liverpool had to do something which they hadn’t done in almost seven years of duels with United – score twice against them in a single game.

And they had to do so without regular match-winners Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, who were consigned to bench duty after their recent struggles with injury.

The so called“two man team” had to find two goals without their two men. Orders don’t come any taller than that.

Oh, and to make matters worse, Tevez’s early goal prompted a spell from United in which their imaginative use of the ball and swaggering movement was threatening to overwhelm a Liverpool side which had been found wanting badly when the Argentine struck.

But the night is always darkest before the dawn and little by little shafts of light began to break through the unremitting gloom to illuminate Liverpool’s play and it wasn’t long before it was they, and not their much vaunted foes, who were playing all the football.

They may have needed a bit of luck to get back into the game when a mistake from Edwin van der Sar dictated that Wes Brown would have to take on the patsy’s role. but any good fortune they received was richly deserved.

Recent experience has taught Liverpool to their cost that coming under pressure in games of this magnitude induces mistakes, so they should apologise to no-one when it is they who benefit from an error, not when they have played with the kind of belief, spirit and determination to make one of Europe’s best defensive units perform, in the words of their own manager, like a Conference team.

In the 87 minutes that followed Tevez’s strike, Liverpool were simply magnificent. It would not be hard to think of games in which they have passed the ball better or played with more creativity, but you would be hard-pressed to remember an occasion when they performed with so much desire that their sheer will to win made them so beautiful to watch.

Javier Mascherano set the tone, crunching into tackle after tackle and chasing every single United player down as if they were Steve Bennett.

Where the midfield general went others followed. So much so that choosing a man of the match became almost as difficult as doing PR for Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

Up front, the lung-busting workrate from Robbie Keane and Dirk Kuyt was breath-taking. In defence, Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel put in the kind of bone-crunching tackles needed to stop the most expensive forward line ever assembled.

Xabi Alonso put in his best performance in some time, Albert Riera impressed on his debut, Pepe Reina did everything asked of him and after a shaky start Fabio Aurelio managed to quell the considerable threat of Wayne Rooney, who suddenly looks almost as old as the grannies the Kop taunted him about.

Every single player deserves plaudits but perhaps the ones who deserve the most praise are the pair who have received the most criticism – particularly on these pages – following Liverpool’s lacklustre early season performances.

Yossi Benayoun proved that he is not really allergic to tackling and in one match-changing moment the Israeli crunched into Michael Carrick to leave the United man hobbling.

Carrick was eventually forced off injured as a direct result of Benayoun’s unlikely ferocity and United were never the same side following his departure.

Alvaro Arbeloa was another sensation as he produced a display which even surpassed his Nou Camp debut, when he shackled the superlative Lionel Messi.

The Spanish right back had never even come close to hitting such dizzy heights since then – until Saturday. The challenge for Arbeloa now – and the rest of the team for that matter – is for such high standards to become the norm rather than the exception.

Ryan Babel’s goal gave Liverpool the spoils and sparked the kind of jubilant scenes on the Kop you would normally expect if the roundly reviled Hicks and Gillett finally got the message and walked away from the club they are threatening to destroy.

But, as the thousands of protesting fans demonstrated so wonderfully before the game, it takes more than a couple of American carpet baggers to suppress the Liverpool spirit.

That spirit was equally as evident on the pitch as Babel – the umpteenth substitute to score a crucial goal during Benitez’s reign – provided the coup de grace on a day when hard work, effort and collective spirit was rewarded.

Such a crucial victory will inevitably act as a cause for optimism and justifiably so. Vanquishing the reigning English and European champions is a major achievement, particularly after they have been given a one goal start.

But a word of warning. It is almost exactly 12 months since the hammering of Derby County on a warm September afternoon caused a mass outbreak of delusions of grandeur on the Kop.

Dreams of a title challenge were hatched when the reality was Liverpool had simply become the first of several sides to dish out a hiding to the worst team in Premier League history.

Granted, United occupy a totally different stratosphere to the abject Rams and any win over them is not to be sneezed at, particularly after waiting so long for one to come along.

But if this wonderful victory is to become the catalyst which everyone at Anfield hopes it will be, then Saturday’s performance must become the benchmark for the rest of the season.

Copyright - Liverpool Echo

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