The FA Cup always offers up great matches that are filled with contention, and Manchester United’s 1-0 win over Liverpool in the Third Round was no different.
A lot of pundits will criticize the two contentious decisions from Howard Webb by claiming that they dictated the outcome – he awarded United a soft penalty, which was expertly converted by Ryan Giggs, but the referee also brandished a straight red card to Steven Gerrard for a harsh tackle on Michael Carrick.
The Red Devils did well and just enough to see out the narrow win in the latest edition of the Northwest Derby, and United will now face Southampton at St. Mary’s Stadium in the Fourth Round.
Unlike against Leeds United last season, Sir Alex Ferguson said that he would name a very strong starting XI, but the most glaring exceptions were Edwin van der Sar, Nemanja Vidic and Wayne Rooney being completely left out of the squad to face Liverpool.
The Gaffer made only three changes from the side that beat Stoke City 2-1 last Tuesday, bringing in Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans and Michael Carrick for Chris Smalling, Vidic and Darron Gibson, respectively.
Despite struggling to find form this season, Evans clearly still has the manager’s faith, and the young defender should be out to make amends since his very sloppy performance in his last outing in the 4-0 loss in the Carling Cup to West Ham United.
Tomasz Kuszczak made his third straight start in the absence of van der Sar with United’s newest signing, Anders Lindegaard, made his first appearance in the squad by claiming a place on the bench.
Liverpool, as most teams do, should have a little bit of extra pep in their step following some more shake-ups off the field with the sacking of Roy Hodgson, who was the Barclays Premier League Manager of the Year last season, in favor of former legend, Kenny Daglish.
In the opening seconds of the match, there was a bit of controversy and it saw United be awarded a penalty.
Daniel Agger was harshly deemed to have fouled Dimitar Berbatov, who scored a hat-trick in the first meating, in the box, and, to be fair, Howard Webb thought long and hard about it before pointing to the spot.
With Rooney out, Ryan Giggs had the honors of taking the penalty, and the Welshman hammered the ball past Pepe Reina to give United the early lead.
In spite of the good start, United was almost cut open after Jonny Evans was outmuscled in the air, which left Rio Ferdinand scrambling to pick up Dirk Kuyt, but a poor pass from the Dutchman did not give Fernando Torres a good chance of shooting and the shot went harmlessly wide of the post for a goal kick.
Darren Fletcher, who supplied the good ball over the top for the penalty, gave away the ball to Kuyt in the middle of the field, and he was rightly given a yellow card for his hard, reactionary foul.
It has to be noted that it took Javier Hernandez until the 13th minute to get a touch of the ball, but it was 45 yards from goal, however, moments later he was marginally offside and if he was not then Chicharito was in acres of space behind the Liverpool defense.
Liverpool were beginning to boss the possession, and it offered them a couple of chances at goal.
First, Torres played the ball back to Gerrard, who then played the ball out to Stephen Kelly and his powerful shot was only slapped away by Kusczak.
Seconds later another smart ball by Gerrard to Maxi Rodriguez saw him place a very dangerous cross across the face of the six yard box, which was expertly dealt with by Ferdinand.
Hernandez was caught in possession by Gerrard, and to spare his blushes, the Liverpool captain’s long ball over the top of the United was little miss-timed because Torres was a half-yard offside.
The game was still being on a knife’s edge, but it was clear that a change in formation was needed for United, because they were out-manned in the center of the midfield.
Liverpool were looking very dangerous going forward, and Kuyt took on two United defenders and then picked out Gerrard, but his near post shot was well-collected by Kuszczak.
Webb then had a very tough decision to make when Gerrard went in with a two-footed, studs-showing tackle on Carrick, and, to the delight of the Old Trafford crowd, the Merseyside club captain was sent for an early bath by the referee after being showed a straight red card.
Daglish was visibly upset by the decision, but after looking at the monitors near the Liverpool dugout he would have to admit that Webb got it spot on.
In a span of 30 seconds, both teams had honest chances at either end.
Nani squirmed his way into the Liverpool area, but his shot, which got under an onrushing Agger, did not have the pace to trouble Reina, and he easily collected the dribbling effort.
From Reina’s long, searching goal kick, Torres flicked it on, and with no support up front with him, Kuyt had a very good shot from distance, but it whistled a few feet wide of the United right-hand post.
Liverpool had the next effort, but Maxi’s long-range shot was never going to trouble Kuszczak, and it ended up in the Stretford End.
Deep into first-half stoppage-time, United were within inches of doubling their lead, but Reina’s right-hand post came to Liverpool’s rescue after an unmarked, powerful header by Jonny Evans crashed against it.
The United halftime team talk from Sir Alex would probably a simple: press them and kill this game off quickly.
To start off the second-half, Giggs made another memorable, mazing run, like the one against Arsenal, to earn United an early corner.
The pressure was there in the opening minutes, and Fletcher’s well-placed cross was met by the head of Chicharito, but his header went agonizingly wide of the far post.
Moments later Hernandez turned provider and whipped in a very good left-footed cross, which Fabio Aurelio almost turned into his own net, but Reina was down quickly to save a certain own goal.
Liverpool finally got the ball into the United half, but it was soon wasted after Raul Meireles’ shot from 40 yards went more towards the visiting fans than Kuszczak’s goal.
Giggs sent in another good cross, which Chicharito fairly challenged Reina, and the ball dropped in the Liverpool area, but Berbatov went for power and he blasted the ball into the crowd.
Liverpool then had a very good chance of their own, but Ferdinand quickly closed down Torres and blocked his shot.
Daglish made a double change bringing off Maxi Rodriguez and Meireles for Ryan Babel and Jonjo Shelvey, respectively.
The two substitutes almost made an immediate impact after Babel danced around a couple of United defenders to test Kuszczak, and the United keeper did well to dive to his left and save the shot.
The changes prompted Ferguson to make his own change and the United manager brought on Anderson for Fletcher to add some more energy to the home side, but it had .
In his first action, Anderson was dispossessed, and then he needlessly pushed Torres off the ball 25 yards from goal to earn himself a caution and give the visitor’s a chance from a very good area.
From the free-kick, Auriello saw his very good placed shot palmed away by Kusczcak and out for a Liverpool corner.
Giggs’ cross took a deflection, and Berbatov reacted quickest to reach it, but Reina was off his line to deflect it for a corner.
Then it was a hair-raising, five save effort in a span of 20 seconds from Reina denying a couple of shots from Rafael and Berbatov, but the finger tip save on Evra’s effort was the pick of the lot to give United another corner.
With hopes of rubbing the visiting supporters’ nose in it, Ferguson brought on Michael Owen for Chicharito for the last quarter of an hour.
Daglish made his third, and final, substitution introducing David Ngog for the virtually ineffective Torres.
Kelly made a good run down the Liverpool right-hand side, and his cross was met by Ngog, but his run carried him passed the near post and he was unable to direct his header on target.
Owen then had a chance to make his impact, and he nutmegged Martin Skrtel, but his low cross was cut out by a Liverpool defender to give United a corner, which, unfortunately, did not come to anything.
Liverpool got a free-kick just inside of the United half, and Shelvy thought that he saw Kusczcak snoozing and decided to quickly shoot but it went high and wide of the goal.
Some very good interchange from Evra and Giggs down the left-hand side saw the French full-back pick out Berbatov, but the Bulgarian’s header went just over Reina’s crossbar.
Chris Smalling was sent on for Jonny Evans, who looked to have picked up an injury before that last break from United.
Owen outfoxed Kuyt and with space to run into, the former Liverpool man shoot was encouraged to shoot, but his effort from 25 yards out went a couple yards wide of Reina’s left-hand post.
Anderson finally had a chance to do what he was brought on for, and he attacked Skrtel, but his effort was deflected out for another United corner.
From that set piece, Giggs picked out an unmarked Evra, and the Frenchman’s overhead kick went out for Liverpool goal kick.
After triumphing in another famous Northwest Derby for the third straight time, Manchester United is now through to the Fourth Round of the FA Cup.
Ryan Giggs showed his class with the conversion of the penalty, but it was his driving runs and great crosses that will have earned him the honors.
T. Kuszczak – 7; Rafael – 7, R. Ferdinand – 7, J. Evans – 7 (C. Smalling – X), P. Evra – 7; Nani – 5, M. Carrick – 7, D. Fletcher – 5 (Anderson – 5), R. Giggs – 8; D. Berbatov – 7, J. Hernandez – 6 (M. Owen – 6)
R. Giggs (2′)
Shots (On Target): 16 (10)
Fouls Conceded (Suffered): 11 (7)
Bookings: D. Fletcher, Anderson