Manchester United gained revenge and ended their run of defeats against Liverpool to go top of the Premier League table with a 2-1 come from behind victory at Old Trafford. Fernando Torres’s early header gave the visitors the lead but Wayne Rooney’s penalty and a Ji Sung Park header meant vital three points for the home team.
The much anticipated battle between the two bitter rivals started off at an explosive pace and Fernando Torres gave the visitors an early lead with a fabulous header. Torres started the move when he seized on a momentary lapse from Michael Carrick in the fifth minute to feed Steven Gerrard with an excellent back-heel. Gerrard found Dirk Kuyt on the right, whose measured cross found an unmarked Torres in the box.
The home side responded quickly through Antonio Valencia’s defense-piercing run. Valencia was illegally stopped by Mascherano, who hauled the winger down from behind and referee Howard Webb immediately pointed to the spot.
The penalty decision and a booking sparked a lot of protests from both teams. Sir Alex Ferguson wanted to see a sending-off for a professional foul, while manager Rafael Benitez was furious at the penalty decision. Mascherano’s foul seemed to happen outside the penalty area but the momentum of the pair took them inside the box.
United’s in-form talismanic striker Wayne Rooney took the spot kick, which was initially saved brilliantly by Jose Reina; but the rebound fell straight at Rooney’s feet and with the goal gaping in front of him, he wasn’t going to miss the second time.
The game settled down following the numerous incidents in the opening twelve minutes, as both sides looked to get a hold of the possession. Little under a quarter of the game had gone, when Park headed wide after being found unmarked eight yards from goal. Antonio Valencia had done well to make half a yard and dig out a cross but it proved to be just too high for the South Korean.
Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard had another off day, and appeared to be off-colour yet again. The ball circulation soon dried up for Torres upfront and his increasing frustration level was evident when he was booked for an unnecessary and poor challenge on Park.
Just before the half-hour mark, Nani came up with a long range scorcher, but Reina was alert at his near post to direct it for a corner.
A minute before half-time, United were awarded a free-kick just outside the box when Jamie Carragher brought down Darren Fletcher; but Rooney’s curling shot was comfortably collected by the Liverpool goalkeeper.
Second half started positively for United and Park combined well with Rooney upfront, but his weak left footer did not even bother to trouble Pepe Reina. However, the South Korean captain – who has proven to be a big-game specialist for Sir Alex – came up with the decisive moment of the game.
At the hour mark, Ji-Sung Park was found by a Darren Fletcher cross from the right and the Korean made no mistake with a diving header six yards from goal. Gary Neville’s overlapping run occupied Insua and left Fletcher on his own to find Park in the centre.
Liverpool had a chance to equalize immediately after the goal, but Torres’s poor first touch was enough for Rio Ferdinand to clear the danger inside United box. As the game entered into the last quarter, the tempers went off. Fletcher and Kuyt had an ugly face-off, but timely intervention from Howard Webb ensured that nothing went out of control.
With just twenty minutes to go for the final whistle, Rafael Benitez took the gamble of enforcing a double change, with Aquilani and Babel coming in for Maxi Rodriguez and Dirk Kuyt. But these substitutions proved to be largely ineffective, as United continued to dominate the ball possession and Liverpool did not look like equalising.
Fernando Torres missed another golden opportunity to equalise with a minute of regulation time to go, when he messed up an excellent ball from Steven Gerrard inside the six-yard box. The miss-kick fell for substitute Yossi Benayoun, but the Israeli’s header was too weak and was collected with ease by United goalkeeper Edwin Van der Sar.
That was the last meaningful attack of the match and the United fans went home happy with full three points against their arch-rivals, also securing the pole position in the standings.
TheHardTackle’s REFEREE REPORT CARD
Name : Howard Webb
Grade : B – (Decent)
Webb controlled the high flying tempers with strong referee. However, his crucial penalty decision was contentious as the foul appeared to be just outside the box. He should have been helped by the linesman though.
TheHardTackle’s PLAYER OF THE MATCH
Darren Fletcher (Manchester United)
The midfielder was the key in winning the midfield battle for United. With Mascherano booked so early, Fletcher took real command of midfield and often provided decent cover from Gary Neville.
MANCHESTER UNITED 2-1 LIVERPOOL
Venue: Old Trafford
Machester United Line-up: Van der Sar, Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Valencia, Fletcher, Carrick, Park, Nani (Giggs 79’), Rooney
Manager: Sir Alex Fergusan
Scorers: Rooney (12’), Park (61’)
Liverpool Line-up: Reina, Johnson, Carragher, Agger, Insua, Mascherano, Lucas, Kuyt (Aquilani 74’), Gerrard, Maxi (Babel 76’), Torres
Manager: Rafael Benitez
Cautions: Torres, Mascherano, Carragher
Scorers: Torres (5′)