Torres proves the class act again
At the end of the storm, as the lyrics to the club's anthem go, there's a golden sky. There certainly was on this occasion, courtesy of Liverpool's answer to the Sunshine Kid, Fernando Torres. Even deprived of their equivalent to Butch Cassidy, Steven Gerrard, one gunslinger was enough to shoot Liverpool out of a particularly dangerous corner. Four successive defeats had made for tempestuous times at Anfield, but a sunny day on Merseyside concluded with the scalp Liverpool prize most: that of Manchester United.
"We were talking before about [how] maybe it is the perfect game," said Rafa Benitez. "It was fantastic."
For those at one end of the East Lancs Road, it was. Four points behind United, Liverpool's is not an irreparable position. The identity of the visitors meant that Anfield was at its most intimidating and Liverpool at their most energetic, but if they perform with similar verve, it is dangerous to dismiss them.
"As I said before, our players are good players," Benitez said. "If you have four or five players injured and these players are fit, they can be a problem for everyone." Even semi-fit, one of their number worried United. Torres' groin problem had restricted him to two light training sessions. After speaking to the striker on the coach, Benitez only decided to select him after arriving at the ground.
While his sidelined sidekick, Gerrard, had traded in the iconic red shirt for jeans and a jumper, Torres managed 80 minutes before donning a tracksuit top. A ninth goal in as many Premier League games was his most significant contribution, but a defensive header to deny Dimitar Berbatov proved another influential contribution. Yet while United laboured against Liverpool's high-intensity game, their spearhead was in imperfect condition.
"You could see he was not 100% fit but 80% of Fernando can make a difference," the manager added. Indeed, 80% of Torres was enough to unsettle Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. The Englishman was outpaced for Torres' opener, following Yossi Benayoun's pass while the Serb committed a series of fouls on the striker, collecting a caution for one.
A second booking came when he halted Dirk Kuyt illegally, completing a three-card trick for Vidic, shown red in three successive games against Liverpool. A straightforward dismissal for some, it was a contentious one for Sir Alex Ferguson. No friend of Alan Wiley, he did not sound overly fond of Andre Marriner either. "The Vidic booking is the worst decision. It was a foul, fine, but the crowd got Vidic booked, but this atmosphere is hard to handle for a referee," he said. "Whether he had enough experience or not, I don't know, but he will certainly learn from it."
Nevertheless, Vidic's difficulties were an indication of the uncertainty in the United defence. During a run of 11 wins in 13 games, it scarcely mattered. At Anfield, while Liverpool rediscovered their resilience and resolve, it was significant. Their back four has been culpable; against United, they were colossal. Daniel Agger excelled alongside Jamie Carragher, who was at his bloody-minded best. The no-holds-barred approach extended to a blatant block on Michael Owen, once his best friend at Anfield.
It brought a yellow card. "That is the controversial one that everyone will be talking about is," added Ferguson, who was certainly keen to discuss it. "He is their most experienced player, their best defender without question, so if he goes off at that stage of the game it would be difficult for them. The laws of the game were altered to prevent professional fouls of that nature."
Instead the Liverpool player to exit was Javier Mascherano. The Argentine departed in injury time for an overzealous challenge on Edwin van der Sar that merited a second yellow card. It marred a fine display. While Torres and David Ngog secured the victory and Carragher and Agger preserved it, Mascherano and Lucas earned it. The pair proved irrepressible, overpowering Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes.
Indeed, in his absence, it was a match to support the theory that Darren Fletcher is United's most important central midfielder. His industry may have proved invaluable. Instead Liverpool's workhorse Lucas capped an indefatigable display by sending Ngog away to cement victory in the 96th minute.
It was at a similarly late stage in proceedings that Owen made his most noteworthy contribution to the United cause, during the derby against Manchester City. There was no repeat. After a perfunctory warm-up Gary Neville, who was not used, showed rather more enthusiasm for jogging towards the Kop to perfect his pantomime villain routine. He took to the pitch to a hostile reception. Not for the first time, one question was posed: "Where were you in Istanbul?" Owen was in the Liverpool penalty area to supply Antonio Valencia when the Ecuadorian struck the bar.
But when the man Benitez recruited to be Liverpool's premier striker scored the opener and his inexperienced replacement delivered the second goal, his stubborn refusal to re-sign Owen was justifiable. Vilified of late, Benitez was vindicated and victorious. The storm seems to have subsided.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Jamie Carragher - An absolutely immense performance that suggested reports of Carragher's demise were somewhat premature. Although deservedly booked for his foul on Owen, he blocked and tackled with huge determination throughout.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the result, not least for Benitez himself. It was a first clean sheet of the season against high-calibre opposition and a first victory against a side likely to finish in the top eight. Significantly, the spine of the side had a solidity again. The improvement in midfield, where Lucas surely had his best game of the season, was vital while Benayoun confirmed he has graduated from fringe player to first choice. Ferguson admitted afterwards that Liverpool were a "wounded animal". It is often when they are at their most dangerous.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Even Ferguson admitted: "Liverpool were the better team." That reflected upon a substandard United display. Even without Fletcher, Ferguson may have been better off reverting to the 4-5-1 formation he has used successfully against Arsenal, Besiktas and CSKA Moscow or selecting the more energetic Anderson instead of Scholes. Jonny Evans' case to displace either Ferdinand or Vidic was enhanced by the failings of the preferred pairing.