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Bad loser Alex Ferguson goes missing

IMAGINE for a terrible second that Liverpool were on the receiving end of a humiliating home defeat to their biggest rivals at lunchtime on Saturday.

Picture – if you can bear to do so - Manchester United tearing hole after hole in the Reds porous back line and inflicting upon them their biggest league defeat in 17 years.

Then envisage Rafa Benitez swerving the obligatory post-match press conference after such an emphatic humiliation, choosing only to deliver his logic defying verdict that his team were the better of the two to an in-house TV channel, leaving his deputy to face all other rolling cameras.

The “Rafa’s Cracking Up” headlines would be written with more speed than Fernando Torres chasing a Steven Gerrard through ball.

So what then are we to make of Alex Ferguson’s reaction to being on the receiving end of that same scenario at the hands of Liverpool? Could it be that it is the United boss who is now feeling the pressure?

Fergie’s irrational initial response to seeing his team ripped to bits by a rampant Liverpool certainly suggests he is – and so he should be.

This was his very own nightmare in the self-styled “Theatre of Dreams” and it came just 24 hours after he’d suggested only a psychiatrist could work out his opposite number at Anfield – that’s what you call a Freudian slip.

But enough about the vanquished, this was Liverpool’s day of days and it is Benitez and his players who should take all the limelight, as surely in his wildest dreams Benitez could not have envisaged bringing up his century of wins as manager in such a glorious, swashbuckling fashion.

Not at a venue where he had never previously tasted victory anyway.

Throw in the “facts” that United had not previously lost a home game for more than a year, in the intervening months had become English, European and world champions and Liverpool had not won by such a margin at Old Trafford since 1936 and Saturday’s final score was almost as improbable as Ronaldo ignoring a mirror.

And perhaps even more so seeing as Liverpool’s pre-match plans were thrown into chaos just minutes before kick-off by the late withdrawal of Alvaro Arbeloa through injury.

If the way Liverpool calmly and professionally dealt with that setback was admirable, it was nothing compared to the manner in which they responded to going a goal down.

United defeats at Old Trafford after taking the lead are so rare they should join Hawaiian Ducks and Brownstriped Grunts on the endangered species list so in a season in which Liverpool have turned coming from behind into something of an art form this was their greatest comeback yet.

Propelled by the knowledge that they simply had to win to breathe life into their fading title hopes, the Reds reacted to Ronaldo’s opener from the penalty spot by scoring four goals of their own.

That’s four, as in the very same number as the team erroneously described as “untouchable” by Arsene Wenger had conceded in their previous 17 league games.

Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard, Fabio Aurelio and Andrea Dossena got their names on the scoresheet but this incredible result which will have made everyone in Europe sit up and take notice owed everything to a team display so complete that it is hard to recall a more impressive one from the men in red – well, not since last Tuesday anyway.

Just as they had done in the wonderful midweek win over Real Madrid, Benitez’s tactics again laid the platform for success with a masterplan built on denying United space between the lines of midfield and attack and free running forwards stretching the home defence executed to perfection by his players.

Nemanja Vidic – arguably the Premier League’s most solid central defender – was so disturbed by Torres that he ended up making the costly error that led to Liverpool’s equaliser before his afternoon of torment was brought to a merciful early end with a wave of Alan Wiley’s red card.

As the Serb found out to his cost, dealing with a rampant Torres and Gerrard is difficult enough but when your defensive partner spends most of the game passing the deadly duo on it is well nigh impossible and from the moment Rio Ferdinand went missing in action as if the drugs testers had just arrived Liverpool took full advantage.

The final scoreline did not flatter them in any way and it could even have been more had Gerrard not proven he is human after all by missing a late chance he would usually expect to gobble up.

Not that this diminishes the captain’s performance in any way though. From the moment he gathered his team mates in a pre-match huddle and told them exactly what was expected of them this was a display of characteristic leadership and drive and the best thing about it was that where Gerrard led others followed.

The entire back four was magnificent with late inclusion Sami Hyypia rolling back the years with a display so dominant it no doubt gave Wayne Rooney another reason to hate Liverpool.

In midfield, Javier Mascherano and the much maligned Lucas were the dominant forces, diligently protecting their defence and using the ball with assurance and intelligence whenever opportunities arose to launch a counter attack.

With Gerrard and Torres cutting through United’s back line seemingly at will this was a display from which every Liverpool player involved can take enormous pride.

Whether it is enough to bring them any more than that remains to be seen as despite Saturday’s setback the Premier League title ball still remains firmly in United’s court.

But having seemingly had the door slammed shut on their own dreams just two weeks ago, Liverpool have now pushed it slightly ajar and will be hoping others will now follow their example of how to go about dismantling the league leaders.

It may seem churlish after such a monumental victory but the euphoria of the occasion should be tinged with more than a little regret.

Liverpool have notched up doubles over United and Chelsea and are guaranteed to finish top of the big four mini league.

In each of the past five seasons the team which has come out on top of this league within a league has gone on to lift the title but Liverpool’s troubles against those they should have been swatting aside with ease means this sequence is unlikely to be continued.

But having proven they can beat anyone, anywhere and done so in such memorable fashion they’ve at least given themselves an outside chance of finishing top of the pile.

For that to happen, United will have to stumble dramatically in the face of increased pressure but seeing as that is exactly what happened on Saturday perhaps no-one should rule it out.

Copyright - Liverpool Echo

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