United's concerns go deeper than just bad results

Manchester United never recovered from the shock of an early goal. The fact that it was they who had scored it did not save them from falling into a daze. They looked befuddled by the thought that beating Liverpool might be even easier than usual. Whatever the reasons, the inert visitors could come up with no response to the equaliser or to the goal with which Rafael Benítez's team went ahead.

In his fifth season at Anfield the Spaniard has his first league win over United. Benítez might almost have been accepting a dare as he pulled off this result without Fernando Torres, a convalescent who stayed on the bench, while Steven Gerrard participated purely as a substitute. The spoils for the manager on this occasion included an entitlement to a respectful hearing when speaking of his depth of squad.

What Liverpool had really underlined was the difficulty United could have in taking the title for a third season in succession. Only Sir Alex Ferguson has done that since the inception of the Premier League and the trick of it may have slipped his mind for the moment. Results in themselves will not be the most nagging of his worries.

While Newcastle United did make off with a point from Old Trafford, Ferguson's team offset that by beating Portsmouth at Fratton Park. A fatalist would add that everyone fails at Anfield sooner or later. In addition, the sequence of fixtures might almost have been designed as a handicap to prevent United from making a fast start. They are at Chelsea next Sunday. Cristiano Ronaldo may be involved and much will depend on how soon he regains form following ankle surgery.

If Ferguson brooded at Anfield it was over the attitude of the line-up available to him. Once Liverpool had drawn level, United had no more to offer than a drive from the substitute Ryan Giggs that José Reina tipped over as a matter of routine. After the interval, there was a lack of focus by United and the centre-half Nemanja Vidic collected a second yellow card that ought to have been a straight red when he led with his arm and smacked Xabi Alonso in the head at the end of the match.

The Serb will be suspended next weekend but so, unless an appeal succeeds, will Chelsea's John Terry. Such things are a temporary trouble and there would have been a deeper concern for Ferguson in witnessing a great footballer such as Paul Scholes, who turns 34 in November, unable to leave his mark on the match. Well-furnished as United's squad is, no club replaces a player of that accomplishment with ease. Scholes is a precious resource that Ferguson may have to tap more sparingly.

Grave issues had not been on the agenda when United took the lead in the third minute. The debutant Dimitar Berbatov, who had already appealed for a penalty by then, could not be stopped by Jamie Carragher from cutting the ball back and Carlos Tevez was free to shoot beyond Reina. When United were shown to be fallible it came as a shock to them as much as the spectators.

Alonso's drive after 26 minutes deflected off Patrice Evra and was then palmed by Edwin van der Sar against Wes Brown for an own-goal. There was nothing random about the action that ensued. A combative Liverpool, with Robbie Keane more engaged than he has been since his arrival in the summer, had an edge to them, whereas United became utterly harmless.

Javier Mascherano and Alonso had purpose and method. The crowd were pleased by the debut of Albert Riera on the left of midfield and, gradually, faith in the team began to build. United not only allowed the revival but contributed to it. Giggs should have kicked the ball behind for a corner in the 77th minute but the tenacious Mascherano relieved him of it before Dirk Kuyt rolled the cross from which the substitute Ryan Babel struck the winner.

Benítez was wisely restrained when asked about Liverpool's capacity to fight for the title. A derby fixture is a notoriously unreliable device for measuring a club's prospects, but it must have gladdened him that the side could be bullish without Torres and, for most of the day, Gerrard. The manager is prudent enough to wait for further evidence about the squad. Some of it will come in Marseille tomorrow during the first Champions League group game.

There are people who might have succumbed to spontaneous joy on Saturday. The club's co-owner George Gillett, making a rare appearance at Anfield after a morning in which fans had mounted a protest march, must have been thankful that all eyes were eventually fixed on the game itself. Those supporters will not forget their grievances and fears, but they knew that this was also a moment to rejoice.

Best moment The persistence with which the Argentinian dispossessed Ryan Giggs in the build-up to Ryan Babel's winner

Man of the match Javier Mascherano

The defensive midfielder typified the tenacity that turned the game in
his side's favour and left Sir Alex Ferguson angry that United had been outfought

Final score Liverpool 2 – 1
(HT 1 – 1)
Manchester United
Brown (og) 27
Babel 77
Tevez 3

Bookings Tevez 21
Vidic 78
Nani 81

Sent off Vidic 90

Liverpool's Percentage Manchester United's Percentage
Corners 5 55% 4 45%
Goal attempts 16 69% 7 31%
On target 11 78% 3 22%
Fouls 10 35% 18 65%
Offside 1 20% 4 80%

Liverpool Jose Manuel Reina, Alvaro Arbeloa, Fabio Aurelio, Martin Skrtel, Jamie Carragher, Albert Riera (Ryan Babel, 71), Javier Mascherano (Sami Hyypia, 87), Xabi Alonso, Yossi Benayoun (Steven Gerrard, 68), Dirk Kuyt, Robbie Keane

Manchester United Edwin van der Sar, Patrice Evra, Wes Brown, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Paul Scholes (Owen Hargreaves, 66), Michael Carrick (Ryan Giggs, 46), Luis de Abreu Anderson (Luis Carlos Nani, 78), Carlos Tevez, Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov

Referee Webb, H
Venue Anfield
Attendance 44,192

Copyright - The Guardian

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