For all the controversy, the clear divide caused by the issue of racist terms and the speculation as to whether the victim of it was to be involved at Anfield on Sunday, fans and neutrals alike were treated to what amounted to be an entertaining game for the right reasons, if let down in some respects by what occurred off the pitch. Perhaps one of the surprises of the team news was the return of David De Gea to the starting line up with Lindegaard making way having started the last few games. Manchester United appeared to be missing a couple of big players to injury, namely Wayne Rooney, Phil Jones and Nani. In defence, United started with Rafael Da Silva, Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Patrice Evra, with midfield taken up by Park Ji-Sung, Scholes, Giggs, Carrick and the in-form Valencia, with Danny Welbeck leading the attack as the single striker. The game started off lively enough, the Liverpool faithful making their feelings known as soon as Evra got a touch of the ball. The opening exchanges flowed, with the referee keen to let the game play out rather than call things back too often, keeping the cards at bay as long as he could. Relations on the pitch did not get too volatile either as both sides played in a competitive manner without letting temperatures reach boiling point. Although both sides threatened attack early on, it was Liverpool making more of their opportunities, with De Gea being tested early on with a good save from just outside the box. Despite this United had more of the ball, generally controlling the play in midfield whilst struggling to get through the defensive line up that Dalglish had gone with. Antonio Valencia had the pick of the early highlights when a driving run angled at the goal resulted in a rifled effort for the far post that had Reina beaten, but came straight off the post. However, it was Liverpool who drew first blood, as a crowded six yard box was not effectively dealt with during a corner, allowing Agger to head home on 21 minutes. From here Liverpool sat back, as United continued to control possession in midfield whilst struggling to create anything meaningful, until 6 minutes before half time, when Rafael fired a cross that was met by a well struck low shot from Park to bring his side back on level terms. The second half started in the same vein, although United began to look more nervy at the back, the occasional slip bringing cause for concern. Penalties appeals were made and dismissed and chances set up, but it appeared the game would be heading for a draw, even as Liverpool began to up the ante in the final 10 minutes. However, that was not to be the case as Andy Carroll touched on a goal kick that fed Kuyt in on goal to finish and provide Liverpool a 2-1 lead with minutes to go, a margin they comfortably saw out in the closing moments. A game that saw tensions between fans, not matched by actions on the pitch, but merely a time that the players let the football take priority, United will be disappointed not to have made more of the possession. For the purposes of this, I will not offer an opinion on the jeering that Evra found himself on the receiving end of on Saturday, people on both sides will have their opinions on it, and enough will have been said that to add to it would simply be distracting from the point of the football. With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) It was the wrong game in which to bring back De Gea
In theory, the possibility of bringing back De Gea in a high profile match in which the young goalkeeper could re-establish himself on a big stage and show viewers exactly what he is capable of, seems a good idea. However, in a game such as that against Liverpool, against a side that had physical advantages up front, it would undoubtedly make fans nervous. Yes, early on he produced a good save, but as soon as Liverpool got their first corner, it was clear there was going to be trouble. Liverpool were keen to exploit what many see as De Gea’s issue with dominating his area and asserting himself for crosses. Liverpool had the likes of Carroll and others, crowding out the 6 yard area, making the most of this against United’s defence and producing a bit of a scrum for the set pieces, something which paid off when on 21 minutes Agger was able to head home after the Spanish ‘keeper failed to get to the ball. I have stated time and again, and will continue to do so, that the young Spaniard will come good given time and patience, taking the time to bulk up and slowly introducing him to the demands of English football, but for the time-being, Lindegaard should be starting most, given his greater experience and his ability to deal with set piece situations. Some have pointed the finger with regards to the winning goal as well, however, at that pace of the shot at the time, to call it a mistake is simply harsh, and although a soft goal to concede the blame lies defensively, as Liverpool found it all too easy to get the ball forward and create the chance.
2) For all the possession, United did not take their chances
For much of the game United had more of the ball, controlling proceedings well in midfield, particularly via Scholes. Although United were guilty of giving the ball away cheaply at times, overall they were able to control play well. However, despite this they simply struggled to get through the Liverpool defence that included three centre backs, a tactic which paid dividends for them as it meant there were difficulties in breaking them down. Although clear cut chances were hard to come by, United simply did not take them when they did and considering Liverpool had chances themselves, it was eventually punished as Liverpool took what was presented to them in the closing minutes as Kuyt gave his side the lead. In all, both sides had their moments, the game could have gone either way and could well have seen a replay, but in the end it was Liverpool who took their chances when it mattered and secured their progress to the next round.
3) Welbeck on his own was not a good tactic on the day
When considering the opposition’s defensive set up, one has to question whether it was wise to leave Welbeck on his own up front. The young striker has been in good form this season, breaking into the first team and contributing a healthy number of goals, but on Saturday he struggled to produce the threat he is capable of providing, having to deal with a built up back line and suffering from a lack of service at times to make the break through. Wayne Rooney was obviously missed as an important figure up front to partner him, but one feels that maybe Welbeck would have benefited from having someone like Berbatov start with him. I do not believe Hernandez would have fared better from starting in such a game and his introduction as a substitute made sense, but on the occasion, Welbeck on his own was not a tactic that worked out.
4) A tale of two benches?
United were hit by injuries to some influential members of the side for this game. Nani, Rooney and Jones were all out (among others) and naturally their absence will likely have been felt. That said, United were still able to field a reasonably strong side, one that was competitive on the day and capable of coming away with a result. However, one might argue that what was available on the benches could be key in the outcome of the match, and indeed it was a substitute in Kuyt that ultimately gave Liverpool victory. The Anfield team ultimately had a couple of players in reserve that could inject pace and threat into them as the game began to wind down. The likes of Bellamy and the aforementioned Kuyt were able to add more to the side coming on than what United had available on the day.
5) Paul Scholes’ superb play, Rafael showing form
Finally, a couple of noteworthy performances. Since coming back from retirement, it’s been hard not to be impressed with Scholes’ play. Some superb passing and an assured nature in his control of the midfield has been a welcome addition to the United side, as well as his wealth of experience. It has also been a reminder of just how much his standard of play has been missed and that his contribution to the team will continue to be effective through to the end of the season. Another notable contribution was from Rafael. Fans have shown concern about his injury prone nature and the odd occasion where he may leave his position exposed when he chooses to go forward, but for much of the game on Saturday he showed real quality, defending well and combining with Valencia nicely on the right. Perhaps the only issue was his rash tackling later on, but hopefully a good run in the team and avoidance of injury will allow him to cement a more regular place in the side.