United add to Reds' inferiority complex
Liverpool, mind the gap. They just can't ignore it. After a match that suggested, at differing points, that the distance between them and Manchester United's was as slender as the half a yard Nemanja Vidic had strayed offside when he touched in the league leaders' winner or as large as the 61 points that have separated the two clubs over the past 18 months, Brendan Rodgers raised the subject.
A 2-1 scoreline almost mirrored the two teams' output over the season, where United's tally of 55 dwarfs Liverpool's rather more meagre 31. Their manager nevertheless said: "We are not 24 points behind in quality." A first half where, Sir Alex Ferguson said "we should have been three, maybe four up" indicated otherwise, a second where Liverpool were revived by a replacement, Daniel Sturridge, gave Rodgers grounds for his inherent positivity.
Yet, while a man held in reserve ensured United had a fraught end to what should have been a comfortable victory, Rodgers asserted: "The points difference is due to the squad. Once we close the gaps in the squad in the coming [transfer] windows, I have great faith we will be able to challenge."
They are pretenders now, United contenders. Once it was the other way around. "People still talk about the game against Nottingham Forest that was a defining moment," said Rodgers, referring to the 1990 FA Cup tie that, rightly or wrongly, has gone down in folklore as the game that saved Ferguson's job. "We have got great hope that that will happen here."
But not just yet, as he accepts himself. Hindered by a slow start, Liverpool still require an injection of momentum. They dropped more points in the first five games of the campaign as United have all season. Ferguson's team have only dropped 11 points in 22 league games this season. They are setting the sort of fearsome pace that Rodgers' mentor, the visiting Jose Mourinho, made his hallmark in his Chelsea days.
The Portuguese took the Mario Balotelli approach to disguise by making himself more conspicuous in a hooded top. Before reinventing himself as an apostle for attacking with a free-scoring Real Madrid side, Mourinho was the charismatic control freak, the master of a 2-0 win.
Their imposing lead notwithstanding, there is a greater fragility to this United side. They were 2-0 ahead for a matter of three minutes. Sturridge swept in the 29th goal they have conceded this season when David de Gea, as he has done rather too often this season, pushed a shot - Steven Gerrard's, in this instance - into the path of an advancing attacker. Then United, lacking the ruthlessness of Mourinho's Chelsea, wobbled.
"When they got their goal they were inspired," Ferguson said. Sturridge, in particular, was a man on a mission, energetic and irrepressible as if to show he has a talent to match his considerable self-belief. "He is going to be a terrific signing," said Rodgers. "The boy is a goalscorer."
He had three opportunities to procure Liverpool an improbable point and Fabio Borini one. "I thought in the end we deserved something," added Rodgers. Yet if Sturridge's verve exposed some of United's frailties - "some of our defending was a bit erratic," said Ferguson - it should not camouflage Liverpool's.
A fearful, frightened first-half display - "tentative" and "hesitant" were Rodgers' preferred adjectives - meant they were fortunate to reach the interval only one goal adrift. They granted Michael Carrick a licence to dictate play, sat too deep, stranded Suarez alone in attack and generally aided United.
"We presented them the ball with three opportunities," said their manager. Joe Allen, the embodiment of Rodgers' ethos, endured a harrowing afternoon. Liverpool's principal passer served as United's playmaker, supplying Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley with chances.
The gazelle-like Welbeck got the official Man-of-the-Match award and post-match praise from Ferguson for an afternoon of non-stop running, though his shots got progressively further from goal. Thankfully for United, Robin van Persie's radar is tuned rather better. His 21st goal of the season was taken with masterly precision following Patrice Evra's cross. A Martin Skrtel goal-line clearance denied him a 22nd when Pepe Reina was beaten by a deft flick while the Dutchman was the instigator of United's second. His free-kick was met by Evra before Vidic applied the finishing touch. To his credit, Rodgers declined to complain about the award of the goal.
"I am more disappointed with how we defended it," he said, after Glen Johnson was left alone with Vidic and Evra and succeeded in stopping neither. "We have got to do better at the back post." Liverpool's susceptibility at set-pieces, which has been exploited by Stoke, was apparent again. Remedying their dead-ball deficiencies would be a start if they are to challenge. So, too, are filling out their slender squad, exerting a greater presence in the centre of the pitch and, above all, proving they can beat a team in the top half of the table. Because until they do, the theory they have an inferiority complex will probably be propagated and the 24-point-gap is likelier to widen than close.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Robin van Persie - Scored yet another vital goal. The Dutchman provided many of the classiest touches. He has now scored home and away against Liverpool, to add to goals against Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: "Until the second goal we were magnificent, it was as good as a performance we've had for a long time," said Ferguson. If there is an element of hyperbole to it, United were in complete control at that point. The Scot's surprise decision to start with Welbeck was a qualified success, though he has now only scored one goal in 25 United games. With Jonny Evans missing with a hamstring injury, the old guard of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand were reunited and praised by Ferguson. A concern was the injury incurred by Ashley Young, who is believed to have left the ground on crutches.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: They were vastly improved in the second half when Suarez was switched to play in the hole in a 4-2-1-3 formation and ended up with a hugely attacking system. Rodgers finally has striking choices with Sturridge and Borini available and the Englishman must start against Norwich next week. Yet the fact remains Liverpool had no effort of note for 52 minutes and Rodgers' tactics from the start must be questioned.