Matches between Manchester United and Liverpool are always looked to with much anticipation and significance, akin to that of a derby game. It is a rivalry that has always remained strong, but on Sunday, lunchtime it took on a rather different tone. With all the information and revelations regarding the terrible tragedy at Hillsborough, there were calls for both sets of fans to set aside their differences, with Sir Alex Ferguson seeking fans of his side to show respect in an open letter, and more calls for sick chants to be stopped.
The mood was seen to be set with Sir Bobby Charlton and Ian Rush showing unity prior to the start of the match, providing an example on which many could follow in not allowing a rivalry to take precedence over the loss of human life. With that it was hoped the rivalry would remain on the pitch, handshakes were made and the sides lined up to kick the game off. Anders Lindegaard was brought back into the side, likely due to De Gea‘s struggles at Anfield last season. With Vidic ruled out, Ferdinand and Evans were the centre back pairing, with Evra and Rafael Da Silva at left and right back respectively. In midfield, United went with Giggs and Carrick, with Nani, Kagawa and Valencia in front of them. Robin Van Persie was the lone front-man.
The match began with the home side starting off the brighter of the two, with Suarez looking particularly dangerous on the attack, something which the defenders looked wary of. United were certainly on the back foot as Liverpool pressed but in the opening exchanges, no goal was conceded. As United tried to get forward, they found themselves losing the ball rather easily, with each attack failing to produce a clear cut chance and getting dispossessed when on the ball. If there was any side likely to score, it was the home one. Then, with only 5 minutes until half time, controversy as Shelvey was given a red card for a two footed challenge on Jonny Evans. Tempers flared and the signs were that another fiery encounter could be on the cards. The sides went in at half time all square.
A change at half time, as Nani made way for Paul Scholes with Sir Alex hoping to gain some control in a midfield that had been totally dominated up until that point. And it was not long before Liverpool’s dominance was rewarded, as Steven Gerrard was set up by Johnson to fire the ball home. 1-0 to Liverpool, and deservedly so. United tried for a response and within minutes, equalised through Rafael. Valencia and Kagawa were involved to set up the young Brazilian who curled in an effort with his left foot to leave Reina with little chance. 1-1 and all to play for.
Liverpool continued to be the better of the two sides, coming close through Suarez and Suso, forcing Lindegaard into good saves. However, with 15 minutes remaining, it was United who would have the chance to take the lead, as Valencia was brought down by Johnson in the box. With an interruption in play due to Agger sustaining an injury, it was Robin Van Persie who stepped up and successfully put United’s recent penalty woes behind them, firing a shot that Reina could only get a hand to on it’s way to goal. 1-2 and a tense finish set up. Liverpool came close to equalising almost immediately through Kelly, and the visitors faced an anxious finale as 7 minutes were added on, but it was not to be as United saw the game out 1-2, much to the relief of the away support. Second best all game, but able to score when it mattered, a hard fought 3 points for United and an unfortunate result for Brendan Rodger’s side. With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) Respect from both sides. Mostly.
I can never see any justification, no matter who one supports, for mocking or celebrating the death of people simply on the basis that they support the other side. Regardless of who someone supports, there is no excuse for deaths associated with that club to be openly chanted about as a point of derision. Ultimately, it is only a sport and a match and such tribalism does not need to be brought forward due to a rivalry. Thankfully, both sides looked to promote the idea of respect, given recent circumstances, in an attempt to quell the pockets of fans who seem to think it wise to use such insulting chants. The rivalry should be kept alive, but not at the expense of those who suffered.
Fortunately, the absolute majority took heed of those calls and duly showed their respect, and one hopes that those that continue to do so will phase out sooner rather than later.
2) Second best, 3 points taken
People always point to performances where sides are clearly second best, yet manage to grind out a result and steal a victory when it was not deserved. Sunday’s game against Liverpool will likely be thought of as such a game. Of course, it is far too early to be calling it R20;form of champions” and other similar phrases, but fans should find some positive in the ability to battle for the win all the same. There are some points of concern, such as being overshadowed in midfield, until Scholes came on to bring some assurance to the centre of the park as well as the fact that Liverpool played better despite being a man down before the half time whistle blew.
3) Refereeing decisions and a fiery atmosphere
Games involving these two teams are always a tense affair with tempers on short fuses and flare ups common. Such a match can be made more so depending on the referee and his decisions. Today was such a day, with a sending off and calls for penalties. Shelvey saw red for a two footed challenge that caught Jonny Evans. Replays showed that Evans also went in two footed and could have just as easily seen red. The referee will have seen Evans get caught and Shelvey not so, influencing his decision and producing the red. Had it been the other way, we probably would have seen Evans get a red. The proper decision would have been both to get red, or failing that then both receive yellow cards. The incident was certainly heated, with Shelvey appearing to rant at Ferguson, for which he apologised later.
A tackle by Van Persie fired up the home fans, although this was a far safer challenge, with one foot, not two and although wild, deserved the yellow card it got. The match winning penalty was seen by some as controversial, although replays show Valencia was clipped, causing him to go to ground. With the game all square, Suarez too could have had a penalty, with the Uruguayan going down from Evans. Some argued that he could have stayed up and that he went down too easily, but in fairness a penalty would have been the correct call at that point.
4) Nani the scapegoat or the villain?
There can be little argument that United were poor for much of the game on Sunday afternoon. For many, the focus of attention was that of Nani’s performance. Wasteful in possession, it was a frustrating day for the winger on the left side, a game in which he was taken off at half time for Paul Scholes. The question one must ask: is he a scapegoat?
Certainly, it would be fair to label him inconsistent, particularly at the start of this season. Last year he showed flashes of brilliance and the skills to match the potential that is seen in him. But at others, he frustrates and adds little to the cause, Sunday being one of those days. But simply pointing to him does not disguise what was a poor performance collectively at Anfield. In possession, United gave the ball away easily and created little in the way of good chances, in comparison to Liverpool who found a number of openings. Perhaps they are still trying to gel in the way they play, or perhaps the side is missing Rooney more than fans would like to think. Regardless, one would have been hard pressed to tell who had 10 men at times and were fortunate to come away with 3 points.
Regarding Nani, yes, he could do better and yes he is frustrating but I do not believe he should be the focal point in looking at why United were poor.
5) Some defensive positives
After the baptism of fire that De Gea received last season at Anfield, it was no surprise to see Lindegaard take his place, in the thought that he would be better equipped to deal with the type of play that may come his way. Indeed, it was an assured performance from the Dane, make good saves to keep the side in it with Ferdinand and Evans combining relatively well to try and suppress the home side’s threat going forward. As well as this, Rafael’s goal is a point of note, a wonderful curling effort on his weaker foot was a spectacular way to bring the game level. Kagawa showed nice control to set him up also.
So a game where there were worries, controversy and goals against the run of play. Sir Alex knows his side need to do better, and will likely look to work on those areas for improvement so it does not prove costly later down the line.