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Mar 6, 2011

Dalglish rewarded for birthday boldness

The soundtrack to the comebacks, the serenades to a stroll and an assertion of authority, one chant has echoed around the league leaders' matches this season. "We're Man United and we'll do what we want," had seemed the chorus to a coronation as champions. The only version aired at Anfield, however, took the form of a taunt. "You're Man United and you'll do what you're told," the Kop argued.

Manchester United were the helpless, hapless, unhappy guests at Kenny Dalglish's belated birthday party ("I don't know how long this birthday's going to last," the Scot remarked dryly. "I'll be 70 by the time it finishes.") Whatever United wanted, it certainly wasn't this: the salutes to Liverpool's 60-year-old icon, the humbling at their historic rivals' home and the very real thought that the record 19th title will slip away. This was the chastening conclusion to a worrying week for United, one where the frailties that their long unbeaten run camouflaged have now been highlighted.

A big squad is not the same as a deep squad and, deprived of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, United's second-string defence failed their greatest test. An ageing maestro can control a midfield, but Paul Scholes requires a better bodyguard than Michael Carrick and more energetic assistance than he is offered. Cautious, careful travellers for so long, United's attempts to field a more attack-minded side backfired. Dimitar Berbatov struck the post and had two efforts cleared off the line, but he can still resemble a luxury item on the road. They were overpowered, overrun as well as overcome by a Liverpool side with more dynamism.

For them, it was a nostalgia trip. As Dirk Kuyt became their first player since Peter Beardsley in 1990 to claim the match ball against United, this seemed like they were revisiting a past when they could lord it over their rivals with greater regularity. A fast, furious, flawed game where both teams played 4-4-2 was reminiscent of the 1980s, the decade that Dalglish and Sir Alex Ferguson first went head to head. Either side of the 20-year interregnum, back-to-back meetings at Anfield have resulted in thumping Liverpool wins delivered by a hat-trick hero.

"It was thoroughly deserved. Everybody that supports Liverpool has had a great day," Dalglish said. "The performance of the players, their attitude, their commitment, the pride they took in the football club and their own performance, that was the reason they got the result. They were all outstanding in different ways. Dirk got three goals; he'll get the headlines. Luis [Suarez] played fantastically well but the rest of them weren't too far behind as well."

The manager acquitted himself pretty well, too. Glaswegian cunning had threatened to be the determining factor. Instead a Ferguson-esque sense of adventure prevailed. More surprisingly, it was displayed by Dalglish. The second coming has been notable for his reluctance to pair two strikers yet, sensing United's fragility, he operated with renewed boldness. One forward, Kuyt, scored three times; the other, Suarez, played a pivotal part in each goal.

When the excellent Uruguayan's free kick was pushed out by Edwin van der Sar into the path of Kuyt, the Dutchman secured his place in Liverpool legend. A hat-trick from a combined distance of about six yards showed a predatory streak that was hidden in his years of hard labour on the right flank. The selfless worker had become the selfish scorer.

Yet Kuyt had appeared endangered when Liverpool spent £58 million on strikers in a surreal transfer deadline day. Andy Carroll debuted in a cameo, Suarez enchanted with his skills but Kuyt applied the finishing touches. "To get a hat-trick against United is the best feeling ever," the Dutchman said.

Brilliance and buffoonery brought two goals in five minutes, the first originating from a remarkable display of trickery at close quarters from Suarez, who slalomed through the United defence before Kuyt touched the Uruguayan's effort over the line.

The supplier for the second was more unexpected: Suarez's cross and Kuyt's finish sandwiched a particularly helpful header from Nani that fell invitingly for the Dutchman. The Portuguese has the most assists in the Premier League this season, but this was an unwanted addition to the list

His unhappy afternoon came to a premature conclusion: scythed down by Jamie Carragher, Nani hobbled after referee Phil Dowd in an unedifying, if perhaps justified, attempt to get his opponent dismissed, and he then departed on a stretcher.

Carragher, who went into the Manchester United dressing room apologise to the winger later, was cautioned then but such right to the moral high ground as United possessed was swiftly abandoned. Rafael's challenge on Lucas was still later, though it met with the same punishment.

Javier Hernandez scored an injury-time goal to deprive Liverpool of a clean sheet, but his manager's verdict on an emphatic defeat went unrecorded. Ferguson is enforcing a media blackout. He, at least, will do what he wants.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Luis Suarez. The solo run that led to Kuyt's opening goal might merit the award in itself, but Suarez was in irrepressible form throughout. His creative talents should serve as an encouragement to both Kuyt and Carroll.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: A team who can often be slow starters attacked with gusto from the first whistle. Dalglish had been reluctant to play an orthodox 4-4-2, but his decision was justified on the day. Steven Gerrard, who had been an injury doubt, got stronger as the game progressed.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Nani has a badly-gashed leg that will be assessed on Monday. Should he prove to be seriously injured, a bad day would have further repercussions. As it is, such consolation as they can derive can come from the fact Rafael was not sent off and escapes suspension, Vidic will return from his ban and Darren Fletcher, on the bench after illness, should be fitter. The captain will be crucial, but the Scot has an importance: on this evidence, it is hard to see why Carrick has a new contract. Perhaps predictably, the makeshift pairing of Chris Smalling and Wes Brown was not a success, but they were far from the only culprits.

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