Sunday afternoon's clash between Manchester United and Liverpool promised to be a cracker. It didn't deliver in that respect, but United fans will go home happy after seeing their side overcome a significant hurdle in their chase to win an unprecedented 19th league title.
Manchester United were desperate to avenge last years 4-1 defeat at the hands of their bitter rivals, while Liverpool were hoping to close the gap on fourth place, and the final Champions League spot.
And Liverpool didn't have to wait long to break the deadlock. Only five minutes had passed when Fernando Torres headed them in front to silence Old Trafford.
Carrick gave away the ball on half way, allowing Gerrard to run at the United defence. His pass release Kuyt down the right, who in turn delivered a perfectly weighted cross onto the head of the waiting Torres.
The Spaniard was left unmarked in the area, and dispatched his header clinically to the delight of the travelling supporters.
However, their delight didn't last long. Luis Antonio Valencia broke the Liverpool backline and raced towards goal before he was dragged to the turf by the chasing Mascherano.
Howard Webb pointed to the spot, despite the foul appearing to take place outside the area, with Valencia's momentum taking him into the area as he fell.
The home fans were baying for a red card, but Webb was undeterred and only cautioned the Argentine midfielder. While Jamie Carragher was covering, it did appear that Mascherano had denied the Ecuadorian a clear goalscoring opportunity, so perhaps he was fortunate to remain on the pitch.
While the fourth official dealt with complaints from both Ferguson and Rafa Benitez, Fernando Torres took his frustration out on the penalty spot.
The striker's frustration was evident, as he cynically kicked the penalty spot away in the hope of damaging United's chances of converting the kick.
This unsportsmanlike behaviour went unnoticed by Webb, although the increasingly agitated Torres was cautioned soon after for a late challenge—on another day, it might have been his second yellow.
Rooney's penalty was well saved by Reina, but the rebound fell kindly to the England striker who tapped it into the empty net.
The fiery opening died away, and the game descended into mediocrity. The rest of the half was played out carefully, with both sides looking to sure up their backlines.
Valencia created a great chance for Park Ji-Sung, but the Korean couldn't convert the header and Liverpool escaped.
In the final moments of the half, a Rooney free kick was well held by Pepe Reina in the Liverpool goal, and the teams went in level at the break.
After the restart, Manchester United assumed complete control. As they began to dominate possession, Liverpool looked devoid of all ideas, with Gerrard anonymous.
United finally got their reward on the hour mark. Fletcher was allowed too much time by the hapless Insua, and delivered an inch perfect cross onto the head of the diving Park.
Old Trafford erupted, and Sir Alex couldn't contain his joy on the touchline.
Liverpool barely troubled United despite going behind. Instead, Wayne Rooney almost added to United's tally, but dragged his shot wide after a mazy run.
In the end, Liverpool did have one last chance to snatch a draw. Gerrard's pull back evaded the United defence, but Torres mis-hit his shot from 12 yards out. The ball looped onto the head of Yossi Benayoun, but his tame header was straight at Van Der Sar in the home goal.
Torres looked certain to score, but the ball appeared to bobble as he struck it, allowing United to escape. It may be worth a mention that the ball bounced up not far from where Torres' defaced the penalty spot in the first half—perhaps it was justice?
United played out the final five minutes of injury time with ease, and completed a win that moves them closer to a record 19th league title.
Liverpool struggled to compete throughout, and never looked like getting anything from the game. Man United's overall domination of possession (60%) was the deciding factor, as Liverpool could not get their midfield into the game—often resulting in Torres' isolation in attack.
Gerrard made little or no impact on the game, and was comfortably marshalled by the impressive Fletcher throughout, while Park and Rooney linked up play nicely, allowing Valencia to give young Insua a torrid afternoon.
In the end, United went home happy, and deservedly so. Liverpool will now face an uphill battle to secure fourth place in the league—some measure of their problems as just a year ago they were hoping to secure a first Premiership title.
The gulf of class between the teams was all too evident, and even if the game did not deliver the excitement that the opening stages promised, Manchester United fans won't care.
United won the bragging rights, and Liverpool's sorry season continues. For Sir Alex Ferguson's side, eclipsing their rivals' 18 league titles must now be on the agenda, as they hope to hammer a final embarrassing blow to Liverpool's season.
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