by Anthony Jones at Talklfc
Midday kick-offs, Manchester United, the Sky cameras, in recent times at Anfield those factors have conspired to trip up Liverpool. Having lost both games last season through a combination of poor defending and individual errors, Benitez was keen to see his side make life harder for the opposition. To ensure that happened, Liverpool once more lined up in the now familiar 4-5-1 formation that Benitez clearly favours. After his stunning goal against Betis, Sinama-Pongolle was rewarded with a place on the right of midfield with Riise returning on the left. Stephen Warnock resumed at left-back ahead of Traore with Finnan replacing Josemi. The other player to return to the side was captain Steven Gerrard who came in, slightly surprisingly at the expense of Mo Sissoko with Garcia remaining in the side.
Manchester United, despite their injury problems were able to recall Roy Keane to the heart of their side to partner Smith. In attack, there was plenty of threat with Scholes, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Rooney and Ronaldo starting. It was at full back that United's overexaggerated injury problems told most with O'Shea and Richardson thrust into the action.
The pre-match talk from the Liverpool manager was of a need for his side to play at a high tempo. His request was matched by his players as they came out full of desire though admirably there was a great deal of control to their play. Any thoughts of either side running away with the game quickly disappeared in what was a highly tactical game with both defences keeping their shape well. In midfield in particular there was no room to move with Xabi Alonso surprisingly off target with his long range passing, though there was little margin for error. Peter Crouch was doing his level best to unsettle the Manchester United back four and was doing a reasonable job, though too often he found himself isolated.
Chances were at a premium in the first half. Steven Gerrard came closest to scoring from a free kick down the Liverpool left. Drilling a cross in towards the far post the ball flew over defenders but was out of reach of Van Der Sar. The ball pitched just inside the six yard box and turned viciously and with everyone left watching, Van Der Sar was pleased to see the ball just skip wide of the post. Gerrard, rightly, was left to wonder why no attacker had reacted to the opportunity. Late in the half, United opened up the Reds defence for the only real time in the game. Ferdinand picked up the ball just inside the half and with little choice but to carry the ball on, he did just that. Suddenly with the extra man in midfield, Liverpool were stretched and the England international slipped the ball between Hyypia and Warnock to Van Nistelrooy on the edge of the box who took the ball in his stride and with Reina closing chipped the ball from a wide angle. The Kop looked on as the ball arced over Reina but failed to dip and landed on the top of the net.
Manchester United started the second half in more determined fashion and a long ball forward went through to Rooney who flicked the ball past Reina. However play had already been pulled back as Rooney had pushed Carragher off the ball. Liverpool needed inspiration and they got it in the form of some strong tackling from Alonso and Gerrard in the centre of the park. Peter Crouch was unlucky after bringing a high ball down on his chest, but slightly off balance he was unable to get his shot away. Liverpool then managed to hit Manchester United on the break with Garcia playing the ball to Gerrard who drove a shot from right to left forcing a full length save from Van Der Sar. Liverpool were firmly in control now, and it was a measure of the performance that both Rooney and Ronaldo were dropping well into their half to find some space. Finnan and Warnock both had strong games against their opposite number whilst Carragher and Hyypia dealt well with the largely aerial threat from Manchester United. The irony was probably lost on the visiting fans, as they derided some of the direct play from Liverpool, in that the only threat their side posed was from the same direct route.
Liverpool were mixing it up, but lacked the cutting edge up front. Sinama Pongolle had a lively game, though will be disappointed that he failed to get in behind Richardson, the same was true of Riise on the left. Luis Garcia's performance was his usual mixed bag. Continually at the centre of everything Liverpool did on the attack, too often his pass went astray with the only mitigating factor being the lack of supporting numbers the home side pushed forward at times. As frustrating as he was, when he was withdrawn late on, Liverpool lost the cohesion between midfield and attack. Before going off, Garcia made possibly the best move into the box, getting on the end of a Gerrard cross but just pushing his header wide of the post with Van Der Sar rooted to the spot.
Benitez tried to mix things up, Sissoko replacing Sinama-Pongolle who had started to drift out of the game after taking a knock to the head. Djibril Cisse was brought on to replace Peter Crouch and showed once again the frustrating nature of his game. The occasional chance to use his pace against the back four went by without any drama as he moved to quickly without thought to what he wanted to achieve. His most notable contribution was to spend more time arguing with the official, who to his credit kept good control of the game and kept his card in his pocket when in years gone by he would have used it more often.
A free kick in the closing minutes of the game for Manchester United was put over the cross bar by Ryan Giggs thus confirming the 0-0 draw. It was a result that will leave both managers clinging to the positive of the solid defensive performance whilst Benitez will also be happy with the general control his side showed over the opposition. Liverpool can also boast at the fact that they forced the only real save of the game, but that boast will hold little weight for supporters who will be no doubt frustrated at the lack of attacking threat. As with all of Liverpool's games this season so far, there was promise and a far better shape to the side compared to last season but the need for attacking reinforcements, especially with Cisse seemingly out of favour, will make the wait until January seem like an eternity unless someone within the squad can emerge.