Liverpool Win the Plaudits, Manchester United Steal the Points

Terry CarrollContributor IIISeptember 24, 2012

This was a day of emotion and mutual respect that ended with recrimination and dismay for Liverpool and a despicable relapse into the mindless chants that so many on all sides had invested so much effort in stopping.

Manchester United may have taken the points but both managers were left unhappy for different reasons.

OK, so nobody could really have expected a classic. When United recorded the 60th anniversary of Munich on the day of a Manchester derby, the match ended as a damp squib with a City win.

So the main question was whether Liverpool would be overwhelmed by such an emotional occasion after a draining week or so when 96 souls were finally laid to rest.

The Reds' response was to put on a stirring display for 90 minutes and, at last, to implement precisely all that Brendan Rodgers has been working for. Unfortunately for Liverpool, events conspired against them. United committed a smash and grab.

Apart from the result, no United fan could be satisfied with this performance and neither could the manager.

How much longer can fans and pundits alike excuse such displays with the tired cliche that "great teams win when they're not playing well"?  

Meanwhile, Brendan Rodgers was once again left feeling that the better side had got no reward, thanks mainly to top referee Mark Halsey.

Let's be clear. Liverpool were the better team in almost every department. Late in the first half the possession stats showed they had 65 percent. They also scored first, despite being down to 10 men. And although they were only down to nine for the last couple of minutes, United still didn't look likely to score again.

So what went wrong?

Well, frankly, what went right? There were of course a couple of refereeing decisions that were critical.

For all Rodgers' moaning that Jonny Evans should have left the field as well, there were two critical differences between the combatants.

Surely Mark Halsey will have been watching the Chelsea match earlier, where David Luiz should have been given a straight red for a wild, dangerous and lunging studs up tackle on Jonathan Walters?

There was outright criticism of that decision and, frankly, referees must enforce the law on serious foul play because it is there to protect the physical safety and careers of other players.

In this day and age, one doesn't often see deliberate attempts to harm a fellow player, so the key to Halsey's decision to red card Jonjo Shelvey was the recklessness of the tackle.

We don't know what was in his mind, but he clearly saw a difference in either or both the action and intent of Shelvey compared to Evans.

Looking back, Evans committed a sliding clearance with both legs straight and lying on the ground. There can be no doubt that Shelvey, however, jumped in with legs apart in the characteristic "cleaning out" tackle that takes man and ball, finishing with a scissors movement.

Evans did not connect, but Shelvey's studs hit his ankle. The FIFA position is especially focused on fouls committed in a "reckless manner" with "complete disregard for danger to, or consequences for, his opponent."

So, we may never know and there are plenty of people who think it would be helpful if referees explained their decisions after a match.

On this occasion, it was clear that Halsey was consulting for some time with at least one of his colleagues, probably the assistant referee in that half of the pitch. Whatever was said, Halsey was confirmed in his decision because he had already reached for his right rear pocket beforehand.

In that moment, most of those watching would have expected the expulsion to be game-changing. 

It was, but not in the way expected. United had been playing poorly and certainly their spirits seemed to lift, but the pattern of play hardly changed before half time. Liverpool did not look in danger of losing the match, even with 10 men.

Sir Alex must be tired of having to produce "the hairdryer" several times already this season. The players were sent out early after half time against Fulham, Wigan and Galatasaray this year.

His exasperation increased towards apoplexy a couple of minutes later when Liverpool scored. For the umpteenth time, inspirational captain Steven Gerrard put down a marker as he has so many times before in this great fixture.

At last, United responded. Their attacks were more concerted and concentrated and eventually one of the stars of the season so far, Rafael, produced an absolute peach of a goal.

Rafael is yet another "Marmite" player, who divides opinion among United fans. Unfairly blamed by Brazil fans for the Olympic loss, he has bounced back with greater maturity than last year.

He has largely eliminated his own recklessness. He is not the best tackler in the world, but nor is his senior Brazilian colleague Marcello, nor his idol, Roberto Carlos.

Sir Alex believes in the adage that "attack is the best form of defence" and has been known to finish a match with four strikers on the pitch. He is also not reluctant to move attacking players to full-back as he did with Valencia when Rafael left the field with injury.

Rafael was partly to blame for the defensive collapse last season at home to City. This season, he is getting a better balance between attack and defence and has been putting in a shift down the right with Valencia.

He is probably under orders from his boss most of the time, because he has the undoubted talent to run through a defence, as does his twin brother Fabio. He did that on Sunday, cutting on a tight angle from the right before bending an exquisite shot into the far corner with his left foot.

Fabio is doing well at QPR and the twins are still barely 22. Unlike Anderson, they are more than fulfilling their promise.

Rafael has 95 appearances under his belt for United and already two full caps for Brazil. They can only get better and it would be unsurprising if either ended up as a winger, or wide right in a 3-5-2, for example.

The goal lifted United, who started to believe.

Meanwhile, Nani had contrived to be atrocious.

He probably only gets his starting place due to Ashley Young's injury, but at this rate, Sir Alex should seriously consider playing Giggs or even Welbeck or Cleverley on the left. They would get a game and couldn't possibly be any worse.

One wonders about his mentality. Sixteen months ago he was picked as Player of the Year by his United teammates. A year ago he publicly stated his ambition to be the best in the world.

Frankly he's deluded and if he's not careful his career could unravel. Ferguson seems to have been prepared to let him go to Zenit St Petersburg at the end of the transfer window. That deal broke down over Nani's unrealistic pay demands. Sound familiar?

Nani has said he wants a new contract at Old Trafford but has been reported as demanding £130,000 a week. He also appears ready to run down the remaining two years of his contract. That would surely backfire big time.

There is a growing frustration among United fans that could easily turn to resentment. Few would complain if Ferguson dropped Nani into the Reserves until he got his head together. The Scot has previously shown himself eve prepared to make a player train with the Academy.That would rightly reflect Nani's stunning immaturity.

One was even drawn to the conclusion that he was playing deliberately badly on Sunday, so shockingly inept he was. Every time he had the ball he gave it away, except when he shot.

Sadly, other players who have a right to their wages were under-performing also. Van Persie and Kagawa haven't recovered their early season heights and it would be no surprise to see Rooney restored at No.10 against Tottenham.

It would be too glib to think this is a temporary loss of form. Both are still working their socks off in the cause of the team, but for some reason it isn't working.

Part of the explanation on Sunday was the two teams' different attitudes to possession.

While Liverpool were harrying and chasing as soon as they lost the ball. United were too easily dispossessed and seemed headless at times while the likes of Gerrard and Sterling rampaged.

So this simply won't do and Sir Alex knows it. A 3-point advantage over their cross-city rivals and only one point off top place behind Chelsea are scant consolation for Sir Alex in what may be his final year.

It seems to be substance rather than form that is the problem. United's designated style of attack is clear, attacking with technical skill and pace with continual interchange between the front six. But there's precious little end product.

The answer seems to be in the gap between the central midfield and attack. Carrick is supposed to be a holding player but Scholes plays too deep. Giggs also was more reserved on Sunday in the face of a swarming, insistent, close passing Liverpool.

The solution would seem to lie with Cleverley. Having been a revelation last season before injury, he can't even seem to get substitute minutes at the moment. Surely Sir Alex will have to start him alongside Carrick against Spurs?

So eventually United stole the points and despite Sir Alex's evident frustration, he has far less to worry about than his Liverpool counterpart.

Rodgers lost Daniel Agger, possibly for the rest of the season, and Shelvey for three matches. His already thin resources have been pared to the bone and he only has one credible striker, Suarez.

The Uruguayan was the villain of the piece again on Sunday, diving and getting no joy from the referee. Tony Pulis has called for such players to be "outed" and ostracised to try and stamp out this sneaky form of cheating. Oscar was booked in the Chelsea match for the same.

So Rodgers cannot afford to lose his start striker with no class replacement, but the United manager has ensured richness in this department.

Based on his couple of cameos in the last week, surely Welbeck must get a start next weekend, even if it has to be on the wing. He brings the sort of danger and aggression that characterises Andy Carroll at his best and was sorely needed against Liverpool.

So United once again grabbed a late win, whether justified or not. Provided at least three central defenders stay fit, Sir Alex will continue his policy of rotation while hoping to win matches, so that by November he will have all his combinations firing on all cylinders.

If the youngsters come good on Wednesday against Newcastle he will have an embarrassment of riches and the ability to fight on all four fronts this season.

He has stated the importance of the Champions League in his programme notes last Wednesday, but surely, in this his final year, he is hankering after at least a major double, knocking his "noisy neighbours" off their perch in the process.

Based on Sunday's performance, however, not even one trophy can be expected. Meulensteen, Ferguson and the players need to come up with a solution on the training field that can ensure a repetition of the irresistible form shown in the last 40 minutes against Wigan and the last 20 against Southampton.


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