The souvenir stalls on Sir Matt Busby Way presumably will not be selling any more of those T-shirts mocking Rafael Benítez as "Deranged! Ludicrous! Insane!". The front cover of Manchester United's Red News fanzine recently had Liverpool's manager superimposed into a straitjacket but, to borrow a line from The Smiths, that joke isn't funny any more. Benítez's team made sure of that on Saturday when they dismantled the English, European and world champions from A to Z.
Sir Alex Ferguson's bluff that United had been the "better team" was almost as staggering as seeing a team going for six trophies in one season broken as easily as a dried twig. Fernando Torres single-handedly directed Nemanja Vidic's candidacy as footballer of the year into the nearest dustbin; Rio Ferdinand reverted to the days when he was a danger to his own team; and Patrice Evra had not looked as bad since his first weeks in English football when he used to vomit after matches, describing the experience like "being in a washing machine". It felt like a trick of the mind that this was a team that had gone from 8 November to 21 February without conceding a league goal.
"We knew their defence had weaknesses," Benítez said. "They are strong in defence but that's because they have plenty of possession elsewhere. They have a lot of quality in attack but that is the main thing that they have. When they don't have the ball and you move the ball quickly and play behind their defenders you know you can beat them."
So much praise has been heaped on Ferdinand, Vidic et al it was unusual to hear an opposition manager divulging such a clear strategy about how to win at Old Trafford. "I do think they have weaknesses," Benítez continued. "We knew they are really good at playing between the lines with penetrating passes so we needed to stop those passes and put their midfielders under pressure every time they received the ball. After that we had to play simple passes and go forward quickly because they [United] are an offensive team and always high up the pitch."
In other words Ferguson's team are so committed to attacking they can leave themselves vulnerable to fast, incisive breaks, particularly when the ball is played behind Vidic, whose weakness is his speed on the turn. It was put to Benítez that Torres had utterly dominated the Serb. "That was one of the ideas," he said. "We knew with [Torres's] movement we could create problems for their defenders."
So much for the Stretford End's theory that Benítez was only one more bad result away from turning into Alan Partridge, filling his car with bars of Toblerone and driving to Dundee in bare feet. Benítez was calm, collected and perfectly in control and, tactically, so superior to Ferguson that we now have the peculiar situation in which the Champions League winners will be desperate to avoid Liverpool in this year's competition. The quarter-final draw is on Friday and it is England's third-placed team, not the first, who everyone will want to miss.
However, in terms of the league let's not get too carried away. United will be seven points clear if they win their game in hand and Ferguson is entitled to have faith in his defence, which has kept more clean sheets than a Holiday Inn this season. United have Manchester City and Arsenal to come but Liverpool are still relying on an improbable set of results if their arch-rivals are not to pull level with them on 18 league titles. Other teams will need to take encouragement from Liverpool's win and visit Old Trafford with a bit more gumption than the norm.
What the result has done is resuscitate a title race that would have been dangerously close to becoming a procession had United held on once Cristiano Ronaldo's 23rd-minute penalty had punished José Reina for bringing down Park Ji-sung.
Vidic's mistake to allow Torres in for the equaliser five minutes later was the classic centre-half's sin: allowing a long, high ball to bounce when it should have been headed clear. And that moment encapsulated United's performance defensively. Liverpool were ahead before half-time when Steven Gerrard was too quick for Evra and converted the resultant penalty.
Fabio Aurelio's free-kick to make it 3–1 was the game's outstanding moment and United were so dishevelled after Vidic had been sent off for his foul on Gerrard the final goal was initiated by nothing more elaborate than a long goalkick from Reina, Ferdinand kindly ducking out of the way for Andrea Dossena to lob Edwin van der Sar.
Liverpool have not taken United apart so comprehensively on their own ground since 1936. "Do you think Alex Ferguson might be cracking up?" Benítez was asked.
Man of the match Fernando Torres (Liverpool)
Manchester United 1 Ronaldo (pen) 23
Liverpool 4 Torres 28, Gerrard (pen) 44, Aurelio 77, Dossena 90
van der Sar 44
Sent off Vidic 76
Manchester United's Percentage Liverpool's Percentage
Corners 10 76% 3 24%
Goal attempts 16 61% 10 39%
On target 10 58% 7 42%
Fouls 14 48% 15 52%
Offside 3 60% 2 40%
Manchester United Edwin van der Sar, Patrice Evra, John O'Shea, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Michael Carrick (Ryan Giggs, 74), Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis de Abreu Anderson (Paul Scholes, 73), Ji-Sung Park (Dimitar Berbatov, 74), Carlos Tevez, Wayne Rooney
Liverpool Jose Manuel Reina, Sami Hyypia, Fabio Aurelio, Martin Skrtel, Jamie Carragher, Albert Riera (Andrea Dossena, 67), Steven Gerrard (Nabil El Zhar, 90), Lucas Leiva, Javier Mascherano, Dirk Kuyt, Fernando Torres (Ryan Babel, 81)
Referee Wiley, A
Venue Old Trafford
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