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Beckham strike scoops pool

ALEX Ferguson said beforehand that he was not keen on playing such an important match so close to next Wednesday's European Cup tie, and his team caught the mood, fortunate indeed to come up against the League leaders on a day when, without Robbie Fowler, they finished like Mr Magoo in a darkened room.
 
Liverpool had the lion's share of possession and chances but, profligate with both, they surrendered their unbeaten record to David Beckham's smartly taken goal, which came courtesy of a delightful assist from Ole Solskjaer. Three points are always welcome, and especially against championship rivals, but Ferguson was not in celebratory mood. Far from it. "Its not often that you win a game and you're displeased," he grumbled. United had struggled, he felt, because his players had not grasped his game plan, and had failed to implement the tactical experiment he had tried with Europe in mind.
 
Playing against what amounted to a 3-6-1 formation, Ferguson had told his full-backs to push into midfield and pick up McManaman and Berger man for man, but they had not been "brave enough" to go all the way, he said. Consequently, McManaman saw enough of the ball, and had sufficient chances, to have won the match on his own. There is no love lost between these two sides, and their meetings tend to be explosive, but this one was something of a slow burner, smouldering for 20 minutes or so, until Beckham's goal shook the players out of their post-international torpor.
 
Ferguson is not one to break open the champagne when his players are picked for their various countries, and there was another dig at England yesterday, for returning Gary Pallister with a strained back. "I couldn't believe they didn't have him warm up before he went on. Ridiculous."
 
Apart from Pallister, United also started without Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs, who succumbed to ankle trouble on the day he signed a new five-year contract (no truth in the rumour that he tripped over his wallet). They may have been nowhere near their best, but beating the old enemy without these three is impresssive testimony to the champions' strength in depth.
 
Liverpool, in contrast, were fatally undermined by the absence of one player: Fowler. They passed the ball around with that delightful easy facility which is unmatched in the domestic game, but with Stan Collymore looking increasingly like a transfer waiting to happen, they had no-one to score. Peter Schmeichel was acclaimed as the man of the match but, as Ferguson pointed out, none of his saves was from the top drawer, and most were no more than routine. In fairness, if they were easy, it was partly because the best goalkeeeper in the world tends to make everything look that way. Schmeichel apart, United's best players were two defenders, David May and Ronny Johnsen, which says it all about the nature of
their performance.
 
They began well enough, Beckham going close with a clever curler before scoring, midway through the first half. Solskjaer was the provider, his dexterous close control and inch-perfect lay-off inviting the England tyro to shoot from inside the D, the ball arrowing in low, via David James's right-hand post. The crowd - at 55,128 United's biggest for 12 years - had barely finished saluting the goal when they were roaring again, stirred this time by the appearance on the touchline of Neil Ruddock, who is not exactly Old Trafford's favourite person just now, after the tackle which left Andy Cole with both legs broken.
 
Having queried Ruddock's parentage, they turned their attention to the referee, who allowed James to get away with flattening Solskjaer with the sort of red-mist challenge that is usually followed by a card of the same hue. That the referee in question was David Elleray made the let-off all the more remarkable. The Harrow teacher is from the big stick school, but this was a nine-out-of-ten performamce, characterised by the let-it-flow common sense which so many officials insist has been legislated out of their brief.
 
Once United were ahead, Liverpool took charge, assembling their pass-and-move game to good effect, only to fall short in the one place where it really mattered. The penalty area. McManaman spurned three good chances before half-time, then Collymore contrived to get the ball tangled between his feet with the goal gaping.
 
The second half was more of the same, with Liverpool pressing, but failing to do justice to their neat approach work. Yesterday, plainly, was not their day. Barnes, set up by McManaman, scooped his shot over, then headed wastefully at Schmeichel from Bjornebye's cross. Mcmanaman fired wide, right to left, Thomas headed over at close range and Berger nodded McAteer's centre obligingly at the goalkeeper.
 
Bad was to become worse. Collymore and Berger at least demanded decent saves, but McManaman was firing with all the accuracy of a blunderbuss. Inaccurate to the end. Poor Evans was frustration personified, and bowed his head in disbelief. "We created so many chances," he said. "And I'm not talking about half chances, I'm on about clear headers from five yards. If we could have put one away, I think we'd have scored three or four, but we've got Robbie Fowler to come back, and let's give some credit to the big man they had between the posts. He's a bit special."
 
Copyright - Sunday Times

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