Since way back in 2007 Anfield has been a ground United have had little reward. Today, however, that particular demon was put to bed after Rafael and a Robin Van Persie penalty scored to ensure they came from a goal down to beat Liverpool.
With the emotion that preceded the match, a memorial in honour of the 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster, many would have thought that the Liverpool team may have been slow to start. In actual fact they were spurred on and were the dominant team during the first half. They played with purpose and forced a lack lustre United to defend deep inside their own half.
It was United though who came closest to taking an early lead. Ryan Giggs, starting in centre midfield in place of Paul Scholes, rifled a 20 yard shot just wide of Pepe Reina’s top left corner. Nani and Kagawa combined nicely to allow Giggs to take his shot, and it was a promising moment. Unfortunately however this was about a s close as United would come to scoring in the first half.
It was Liverpool who provided the greatest threat, and no sooner had Giggs come close to giving United the lead Rafael had to adjust well to prevent Liverpool taking the lead, after Lindegarrd in the United goal could only take the sting off a drilled cross. Steven Gerrard was then unlucky not to have found the net after a training ground routine left the United defence ball watching. Gerrard though could only find the side netting. It was a wake up call for United who were showing a distinct lack of urgency, both on and off the ball.
Van Persie was finding himself more and more isolated upfront. Liverpools dominance of possession pushed the United midfield back very deep, and distance between them and the Dutchman gave United few options when a Liverpool attack broke down, and Liverpool would soon be back applying the pressure.
Fortunately, Liverpools forward line weren’t punishing United. Having found themselves in so many good positions you felt that if United could weather the storm they would grow in to the game. Liverpools lack of conviction was once again highlighted when Borini beat the offside to find himself through on goal, only to see the chance go after a heavy first allowed Johnny Evans close him down.
Evans is still finding his feet a little this season after recovering from injury, therefore with no Vidic in the squad today it was vital that Rio Ferdinand was on top of his game. United fans feared the worst when he had an early injury scare, but he came through it and, along with Rafael, was Uniteds best player.
With Liverpool piling the on the pressure, the half time whistle couldn’t come quick enough. But before Ferguson had a chance to put his feelings across in the dressing room, the balance of the game shifted in Uniteds favour. The ball broke lose after Shelvey knicked it off Giggs, but then piled into the 50-50 with Johnny Evens dangerously with booth feet off the ground. Referee Mark Halsey had little choice, but was still brave, to show the Liverpool midfielder a red card.
Immediate thoughts were that United may, themselves, take control of the remainder of the half. Once again though it was Liverpool who continued to press and look the most likely, and a Suarez freekick had Lindegaard at full stretch to keep the scoreline at 0-0. United were relieved to reach half time on level terms.
The second half began with the belief that United would now compose themselves and take control of the game. But with just 50 seconds on the clock Liverpool took the lead. Suso, now on for Borini, saw his cross not cleared properly and Paul Scholes, on for Nani, could only block the resultant Glen Johnson shot. As the ball looped high Gerrard found himself, inexplicably, in acres of space just twelve yards out and swept the ball past Lindegaard who had no chance.
As so often is the case the best kick up the arse Manchester United can get to make them play is going behind. Today at Anfield we saw it again.United played with more urgancy now and with Paul Schoiles now taking control of the ball in midfield the Liverpool threat wained a little and Uniteds increased.
It took all of five minutes for United to draw level. Shinji Kagawa chested down a Valencia to Rafael who beautifully bent his left footed shot in to the far corner. On his weaker foot and from a very tight angle the young Brazilian got his just rewards after another energetic performance at right back.
To their credit Liverpool continued to play in the same vain as they had in the previous 55 minutes. However, after nearly an hour, United were now fully involved. It doesn’t sound good, being ‘just’ competitive against ten men, but as we all know the team with the missing man can often galvanise.
We did look far more comfortable though and it seamed to be a case of just plugging away waiting for the chance we needed. Possession on the edge of the box was much more common and it appeared to be a matter of time before one of the little through balls from Van Persie, Scholes or Kagawa would split the Liverpool defence.
At the other end Liverpool were still keeping Lindegaard warm. The United ‘keeper saved well from long range efforts by Suarez and Suso. Suarez also found himself in behind the United defence on more than one occasion, but a lack of support and the United defence recovering to snuff out any chance constantly frustrated the Uruguayan striker. He was no more frustrated though than when he had a penalty appeal waved away. Only the most eagled eyed referee would have spotted that Suarez did actually manage to reach the ball before Johnny Evens. Or perhaps it was just a case of “The Who Cried Wolf.”
With beautiful irony it was United who won the game thanks to a penalty of their own. Valencia, who wasn’t at his best today, showed unbelievable desire and pace to nip in between Glen Johnson and Agger to retrieve a lose ball and bear down on the Liverpool goal. As he entered the box he had all the time in the world to take a shot or pick out an unmarked team mate. However, with a little shimmy, he went passed Skrtel and was about to fire away a shot when Johnson made a very clumsy tackle which took Valencias feet away. An injury to Agger meant that Van Persie had to wait four minutes before he could take Uniteds fourth penalty in as many games. Having missed the previous three penalties, surely United would convert this one. Van Persie went with power as well as direction and even though Reina got two hands to the ball United were in front.
With Liverpool now having to chase the game Chicharito was introduced to give a greater threat on the counter attack. The home team did see a lot of the ball in those final few minutes, and Martin Kelly should have done better with a header which he glanced wide. That was the closest Liverpool came though to an equaliser, despite eight minutes of injury time.
It wasn’t pretty and United have to perform better in these types of games, but this was Anfield and all that mattered was the result. We got that result.
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