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Mar 17, 2014

Home humiliation epitomizes Moyes' failure

Elitist Europeans proclaim that Americans simply don't understand the true spirit of world soccer, but they should have seen the display this past Sunday at my local watering hole. Large bald men who looked like they may have either spent time in the military, the MMA or both had been hired to menacingly ensure that the Liverpool and Manchester United supporters didn't intermingle.

(Later, these same Vin Diesel stunt doubles kept Spurs rabble and Arsenal faithful apart while monitoring the North London derby.)

The bringing in of local muscle bespeaks what these bitter rivalries are really all about: two groups of complete strangers, emboldened by tradition, desperately trying to outsing, outdrink and occasionally outpunch each other all in the name of the Beautiful Game.

"We decided to keep the Liverpool supporters upstairs and the United supporters in the basement," explained Jack Keane, the major domo behind the bar of New York City's Football Factory. "There's a lot of anger in here today. I like that." I doubt that Jack understood the power of his metaphor when he put United followers in the lower tier. Few derbies overflow with as much seething resentment as United-Liverpool and, to a lesser extent, Spurs-Arsenal. And on Sunday there was an extra frisson of tribal loathing because the results went far beyond the normal bragging rights. Two of the four teams were in the thick of the title race, and the fact that one of them wasn’t Manchester United contributed to the edgy mood of the downstairs mosh pit.

Can you guess the name of the other team that no longer has to worry about Champions League soccer schedule congestion next season? Here's a hint: Their supporters showed up at White Hart Lane with pitchforks and lanterns to agitate for the removal of the club's chief executive who authorized spending $40 million on Roberto Soldado, a striker who is held in such high regard that he was brought on with nine minutes go to in a 1-0 game which his team had been trailing for the past 81 minutes.

At the same time, these mutinous fans generously took up a collection to buy their latest temporary manager a new fleece coat after he ripped off the one he wore on Sunday and angrily hurled it against the substitutes' bench in a display of grace under pressure.

- Mitten: Fans losing patience? - Jolly: Moyes' misery continues - Brewin: Reds humiliate Man United - Usher: Utd mauling fuels LFC's title drive - Nicol: Dissecting Liverpool's victory - Goals: Man Utd 0-3 LFC (U.S. only)

Yes, it was a day I will remember fondly, but if Spurs supporters want to experience new levels of misery, they should commiserate with their counterparts from the red side of Manchester.

"The way I look at it, our season has only three games left," said Jason, the vocal ringleader of the United faithful just before kickoff. "Today against Liverpool, Wednesday against Olympiakos and next weekend against Man City. And if we lose all three, I plan to descend into a tub full of gin and not emerge until next season."

If United's performance on Sunday was any indication, Jason can immediately start filling his Jacuzzi with distilled spirits. Just when you thought that the Red Devils had hit their nadir three weeks ago in the abysmal 2-0 Champions League defeat to Olympiakos, David Moyes' men find new ways to keep lowering the bar. It's becoming increasingly difficult to believe that this is essentially the same band of plucky veterans who had 71 points at this stage last year, 23 more than their current 48.

At this rate, Liverpool will end up scoring more goals at home than United will score points. Even more astonishing is how they've let their fiercest rivals not just overtake them, but leave them gasping on their red contrails. It's like they single-handedly carried every LFC player back up to their perch. With eight games left to play last season, Liverpool were 29 points behind the defending champions. They are now 14 points ahead of them. In soccer as in Scrabble, you just can't ignore a 43-point swing.

For all his man-management skills and tactical intelligence, Liverpool's Brendan Rodgers will be the first to tell you that he is not wholly responsible for that seismic shift. In fact, despite the Reds' surge up the table to second place, only four points behind Chelsea with a game in hand, he refuses to publicly allow that the Reds have even a teensy weensy chance of winning their first title in 24 years. Luckily, his captain Steven Gerrard is happy to do it for him. "We believe that we can win the league," said Stevie G after converting two of three penalty kicks against United. "I've come to Old Trafford many times and been played off the park. They are a fantastic team and this is one of the most difficult places to come to."

Of course, when considering Gerrard's assessment, you need to remember that he also believes Phil Collins is a gifted singer.

As much as it pains me to admit it, the Reds have eclipsed Arsenal as the Premier League's most aesthetically pleasing outfit, although even a coat-less Tim Sherwood would admit that Tomas Rosicky's derby-winning golazo after 72 seconds was a thing of beauty. As for the remaining 88 minutes and 48 seconds of the Gunners' 1-0 victory over Spurs, let's just say that Wenger can no longer criticize the Stokes and Fulhams of the world for parking the bus.

Liverpool's defense has had its wobbly moments this season, but fortunately their attack more than papers over the cracks. With the Triple S of Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling interchanging positions and passing the ball in a blur of speed and panache, they forced United to resort to clumsy tackles in a futile attempt to contain them, though the second yellow that Nemanja Vidic received in the 78th minute leading to his dismissal and Gerrard's one botched spot-kick was harsh in the extreme -- replays showed that Sturridge appeared to dive over the Serb's outstretched leg.

Still, as impressive as Liverpool was, the gulf in quality with their old enemies was shocking. With the exception of David de Gea there wasn't a single United player who was on a par with his Liverpool counterpart.

Robin van Persie contends that the press has misinterpreted his recent comments about his frustration with Moyes' tactics but he continues to cut an indifferent, Berbatov-esque figure, his body language betraying his disgust at the lack of half-decent service. And on the rare occasions when he had space and time to shuttle the ball onto his lethal left foot, his shots invariably flew high into the side netting. Incredibly, United gave up more penalties -- three, the first ones conceded by United at Old Trafford since December 2011 -- than they managed shots on target (one), with only Wayne Rooney calling upon Liverpool to even bother fielding a keeper. At least you can't say that Wazza isn't earning his new $450,000-a-week contract.

Outside of United's fiery playmaker, you needed to check your program to make sure that Juan Mata and Michael Carrick were even on the pitch, so invisible was United's midfield. Had his face not been covered in blood from an "accidental" Gerrard elbow, you would be forgiven for thinking Marouane Fellaini was MIA as well.

"The problem with that elbow," said Jason, the rabid United supporter, "is that it wasn’t hard enough because Fellaini stayed on the field." You know you're in trouble when your fans are rooting for your most expensive summer signing to exit stage right on a gurney.

While Gerrard may have been guilty of a foul, he was otherwise a commanding presence in the middle of the park and showed what a true sportsman he is by hammering his third spot-kick off the post after calmly converting the first two. Even Stevie G must have felt that a hat-trick of penalty kicks against United at Old Trafford would be disrespectful to the legacy of Sir Alex Ferguson.

By the way, while I'm on the unusual subject of sportsmanship in United-Liverpool hate-fests, how cool was that hand-slap between Suarez and De Gea after the big Spaniard stonewalled a point-blank blast from the Uruguayan? Later, when Suarez beat him for the third goal, no pleasantries were exchanged until they hugged it out at the final whistle. Loathe him if you must, but Anfield's favorite striker has his moments. Not everyone inside Old Trafford was as genteel. Take the cameraman who was so resoundingly bored around the 80-minute mark that he decided to pan to Sir Alex and let the camera linger with fiendish glee on the cheek-biting, gum-gnashing mask of anguish that was Fergie's puce face.

While he would never acknowledge his role in the hot mess that is United, the Scot has to know deep down that he has only himself to blame for picking Moyes over Jose Mourinho to succeed him. Despite Saturday's horror show against Aston Villa that saw Chelsea finish with nine men and no manager, the Special One still has Chelsea in first place even if Mourinho has ceded the title to Man City, who are six points back with three games in hand.

As for Moyes, he has been flailing about all season. It started with his disastrous transfer policy, advanced to the rumblings of discontent in the dressing room, a remarkable lack of tactical flexibility and a marked penchant for head-scratching substitutions. What, for instance, was he thinking on Sunday when two goals down at home with 10 minutes remaining, he brings on... Tom Cleverley. That's the same Tom Cleverley who has scored one goal in 18 appearances this season.

"David Moyes is a football genius," trumpeted the huge banner in the Liverpool end at Old Trafford.

Unfortunately for Moyes, the only people who believe that now are the fans of the teams lining up to play United.