Monday, January 23, 2006

Match Review: Manchester United 1 - 0 Liverpool


I really should stop watching live matches or I'll drop dead of a heart attack one of these days.

Manchester United against Liverpool, for me, has always been the major fixture of the season. Even the Manchester derby doesn't match up, because in terms of history, tradition, and trophies won, to be brutally honest, City isn't anywhere near Liverpool. When I first started following the English Premier League at the age of 10, Liverpool were our closest and fiercest rivals. Even now, with the emergence of Arsenal and Chelsea, the rivalry doesn't come close to that of Liverpool's. The tradition, the rich history, is just not there.

I spent the whole of yesterday begging the Chelsea fan Andy not to bet on Man Utd or they'd lose, and thank God he didn't. We went to a kopitiam near his place for the match, since he doesn't have cable at home, and to my secret delight we were just in time to see Chelsea drop 2 points against Charlton in a 1 - 1 draw. Andy's face was as black as pitch, but he very sportingly sat down and cheered on Man Utd with me when the match began. Which team would be able to capitalise on the Chelsea draw? Or would it end up a draw?

I got a jolt though, when I saw the starting lineup for United. Kieran Richardson and John O'Shea in central midfield with Fletcher on the right? Granted, Park Ji-Sung has a knee problem and Cristiano Ronaldo is suspended which puts our two right wingers out of commission (yes yes, I know that Park is not a true winger but rather an attacking midfielder; he can play wide on the right though), and Alan Smith, our hero of the last big match against Chelsea, apparently hadn't recovered from his flu. But that starting lineup was scary, man. Pitting a very small-sized Richardson against Liverpool's talismanic Steven Gerrard and twice-Richardson's-size Xabi Alonso was not the way I'd have chosen to start this crucial match.

Add to that the fact that Liverpool have been on a 10-match unbeaten run and morale in their camp is sky-high, and the inconsistency of Man Utd plus their 3 - 1 drubbing at the hands of their bitter derby rivals last week, everything about this match screamed Draw or Liverpool Win. But Man Utd have a habit of ending runs and rising to big occasions (can anyone say Arsenal and Chelsea?), and though Liverpool started strongly enough, within 10 minutes Man Utd had gotten a nice flowy rhythm and began countering on the break.

The first half was uneventful enough except for one or two good saves from Edwin van der Sar and Jose Reina on both ends. Steven Gerrard tried a few long range shots that went sadly wide, Rooney and Richardson combined to send the Liverpool defence into a scramble, and Wes Brown, steady and composed as always, made a fantastic interception to deny Liverpool a chance at opening the scoring. He has struck up a very good partnership with Rio Ferdinand, and brings a sense of stability to the concentration-challenged Ferdinand, and on the strength of their defenseive partnership, they should be able to consign Nemanja Vidic to the status of bench-warmer for quite a while.

Patrice Evra, quite far from his unspectacular debut in the ill-fated Manchester derby, performed impressively last night. Though he does not have the aggressiveness of Gabriel Heinze, who doesn't hesitate to scythe down luckless opposing right wingers, Evra is a stylish defender in the mould of Rio Ferdiand, lightning-quick, good at overlapping and delivering crosses, yet does not have a tendency to leave his position exposed. A few more matches, a better grasp of English, and Evra would give Heinze a run for his money.

The second half started with a surprise: Louis Saha thrown into the fray at the expense of John O' Shea, and Rooney withdrawn to the right. There were mutters and murmurs of surprise all around, but it wasn't 5 minutes before we realised how tactically astute Sir Alex is, and how his introduction of Saha really exploited the chink in the armour of the unflappable Liverpool central defence pairing of Sami Hyppia and Jamie Carragher: Pace.

The combined speed of Giggs, Rooney, Saha and Richardson ran the Liverpool defence ragged. Rooney, as always, was everywhere on the pitch - left, right, centre, even back in defence, running amok, much to the chagrin of the Scousers. Time and again the three of them broke through the defence, only to be denied by the offside flag, or to have Ruud van Nistelrooy's first touch, normally lethal, let him down. I knew a goal would come; it was just a matter of when.

And a goal did come. It just came late, in the 91st minute, and from a completely unexpected source - latest goal machine Rio Ferdinand.

Giggs floated in a free kick a few yards behind the corner of the box, and Rio rose magnificently to the occasion to nod home the ball powerfully, which Reina managed to get a hand to but couldn't keep out. After a drought of 140 games, it is now 3 goals in 8 games for Ferdinand, and with his much-improved defending he will continue to pose problems for defences and attackers alike.

Manchester United verdict: Why don't they play like this all the time, dammit?! The Man Utd yesterday was an absolute joy to watch - smooth-flowing. confident, entertaining. Seriously, I would have been happy to watch the match even if it had ended up goalless, it was so entertaining. The only disappointment was the relative anonymity of our usual lethal goal-poacher van Nistelrooy.

Player to watch: Rio Ferdinand and Wes Brown. Now I can't mention one without the other. A superb goalline clearance from Ferdinand kept the match open, and at the other end of the pitch he won the match for the team, while Brown kept Gerrard and Cisse in particular at bay with almost scary ease.

Liverpool verdict: The soft-spoken Spaniard Rafael Benitez commands hell of a lot more respect from me than does the whinger Mourinho, and just for that I tip my hat off to him. It took him time, but he has managed to mould Liverpool into a team based on teamwork and not just a one-man show over-reliant on their captain, persuaded the sulky Djibril Cisse to stay at Anfield and coaxed the petulant Harry Kewell back to his best. I'm over the moon that Man Utd won, and they did deserve their win, but Liverpool worked their socks off and a draw would still have been fair.

Player to watch: Harry Kewell. After 3 indifferent seasons at Liverpool, dogged by injuries, the Australian is back to the scintillating form that made him so coveted when he was at Leeds. He was a thorn in Man Utd's defence throughout the whole first half, all the more so since Gerrard was effectively shackled, and though Gary Neville did an admirable job of containing him he still had his hands full with Kewell's moments of individual brilliance.

Miscellaneous observation: What in the name of fuck is Djibril Cisse trying to achieve with his new hairstyle? He looks like he stuck a penis down the middle of his bald head. Wouldn't it interfere with his heading accuracy?


At 6:29 PM, January 23, 2006, Blogger JayWalk said...

I have to disagree with you on a few counts here.

With Alan Smith failing the last minute fitness test, we were lucky not to lose this game. The stats showed ManUtd's possession at 42% against 58% possession on the Liverpool side is evidence that we were well-beaten in midfield. There was nothing to cheer about except that we were lucky to have Van der Sar, Ferdinand and Brown in good form to save the home side from blushes.

Evra lacked peripheral awareness and that worries me. The moment you see this guy looking left and right wondering where the action was, you know we are in trouble.

Perhaps the Moment of The Match was not the goal itself. It was Rooney and his incredible burst of pace in the 88th minutes that made me jaw dropped. Liverpool got the break and Sinama Pongolle was charging down via the right. Then we have Rooney bursting into speed from the halfway line and hacking down the Liverpool man, albeit uncleanly, before the latter could even reach the penalty box. Granted that Ponglle had to dribble the ball with him, but Rooney's speed was easily more than doubled the Liverpool bloke. So Rooney had a yellow card hacking down Pongolle but his exhibition of speed nevertheless earned him a new respect from me.

At 6:33 PM, January 23, 2006, Blogger JayWalk said...

... and yes. Cisse's hairstyle is simply awful. YUCK!

At 6:35 PM, January 23, 2006, Blogger Merenwen said...

If we're talking about pace, there was this moment late in the second half where Giggs put on this incredible spurt of acceleration down the right wing before losing possession. The old master still has his touch. It was dazzling, man.


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