The statistics tell one story from Sunday’s clash between Liverpool and Manchester United at Anfield. If you knew everything but the scoreline, it might have been easy to assume that Liverpool romped to an easy win.
The scoreline, however, tells the only story that matters: Liverpool 0, Manchester United 1.
Liverpool dominated statistically and created more in the way of chances, but it was the one that United’s Carlos Tevez converted that made the difference in the match’s outcome.
Rafa Benitez’s squad selection showed that he had full faith in his side to get the job done, as he made no changes to the starting XI that throttled Marseille 4-0 on Tuesday, which is noteworthy given how rare it is to see Liverpool with the same lineup two matches in a row. Sir Alex Ferguson made numerous changes to the lineup he sent out on the pitch, but that was of no surprise or consequence given many of United’s key players were rested against Roma on Wednesday.
In the early going, it seemed both sides were more intent on giving Mark Halsey more action than the keepers, though it took a quarter of an hour for the first booking to occur, when Patrice Evra was booked for a poor challenge on Yossi Benayoun.
The first real chance of the match near the half-hour, when United nearly gifted Liverpool the lead.
Steven Gerrard’s set piece was headed away ineffectively by Wes Brown, and when Edwin Van der Sar tried to get to the ball, he was impeded by his own teammates.
Harry Kewell had a golden opportunity to score, but Anderson was right on the spot to deflect his shot on the line. However, it looked as if it would do more harm than good, as the ball went right to Fernando Torres, who had the easiest of chances for lucky #13, but luck wasn’t on his or his team’s side, as the ball wound up on the wrong side of the post.
Moments later, Liverpool should have taken the lead again, as United appeared eager to sabotage themselves. Van der Sar ran into Nemanja Vidic while trying to retrieve Rio Ferdinand’s clearance of another Gerrard set piece, and as the ball headed goalwards for a shocking own goal, Patrice Evra saved the day by beating Dirk Kuyt to the ball and clearing it away.
After averting two potential catastrophic situations in a row, United were undoubtedly counting their lucky stars that they weren’t down 2-0, after having given Liverpool more chances to score than they’d created for themselves.
And then, almost out of nowhere, the visitors went ahead on 43 minutes.
Ryan Giggs’ corner was delivered into the area, and while Liverpool busied themselves with something other than defending, Wayne Rooney was left unmarked to fire a shot at goal.
Whether or not his shot would have found the net is irrelevant, and he likely isn’t too upset about the fact that Tevez, who was onside, was ever the opportunist and directed the ball into the open net.
There wasn’t much in the way of serious chances for either side in the second half, but the best chance went to United, who should have put the points in the piggy bank in the final 15 minutes, but wastefulness is apparently contagious, as Rooney should have made it 2-0, but he put a tap-in wide.
However, if Liverpool hadn’t found the net by then, they weren’t going to, and after unsurprisingly squandering a few more chances, Mark Halsey did them a favor by blowing the final whistle.
The scoreline fell far short of the 3-2 prediction that I made, but that turned out to be the yellow card count.
It wasn’t United’s best performance of the season by any stretch of the imagination, and harkened more to their performances at the beginning of the season, as Rooney and Ronaldo, who have made a habit of creating and converting through the early going, weren’t serious factors for the most part.
But, a win is a win, and the three points keep United on pace with Arsenal, who eeked out their own 1-0 win at the Emirates against Chelsea in the day’s other big showdown.
It was an overall disappointing display by each team’s vaunted attacking players, but especially so for the home side, namely Torres and Kuyt, who should have delivered a Liverpool victory. Every star has their off-day, but when it comes against one of your biggest rivals, it’s poor, poor timing, especially when you come in having no problems in front of net.
Kuyt’s mess of a performance might need to make Benitez think a little about which Dutchman he needs to be starting more, as Ryan Babel has been the one providing the biggest spark up front aside from Torres.
It was not the inspired or exciting performance that you would have expected from the home side after their fantastic feat in France, but after such a big win, such an enormous letdown is not a surprise.
As it stands, it’s a second consecutive league defeat, and Liverpool are now ten points behind Arsenal, and are holding onto fifth only by goal difference over their Merseyside rivals Everton and Harry Redknapp’s Portsmouth, who are both on 30 points, and are a mere two points ahead of eighth-placed Aston Villa.
And, it goes down as yet another loss to their north-west rivals, who carry their unbeaten run at Anfield to six matches and have now won 9 of the last 11 meetings between the two sides. It’s an especially bitter pill to swallow given that the last time the two sides met at Anfield, it went much the same way, though the decisive goal came much earlier this time – Liverpool could have won and should have won, but it was United who grabbed all three points with a late winner.
United take on Everton next Sunday looking for the league sweep over David Moyes’ side and continue their rule over the two Merseyside rivals, while Liverpool will take on Chelsea in a Carling Cup quarterfinal on Wednesday before resuming league action at home against Portsmouth on Saturday.
United and Liverpool’s next assured meeting is on March 22 at Old Trafford, and that will be the next chance for Liverpool to break the spell that the Red Devils have over them, as no matter how hard they tried, or how close they were, today was not to be the day.