Sunday, March 15, 2009

Match Report: Manchester United 1 - 4 LiverpooL

Rafael Benitez might end up having the last laugh after all as his Liverpool side hauled themselves back into the title fight with a decisive crushing of 10-man Manchester United at Old Trafford.

The Merseyside giants battled back from a goal down to defeat the Premier League leaders in clinical fashion, Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard turning the match on its head before the break, with Fabio Aurelio and Andrea Dossena easing Liverpool well clear before the end.

In contrast, it was an day to forget for Nemanja Vidic, who gifted Torres the equaliser before being sent off against Liverpool for second time this season as Benitez's side reduced United's lead at the top to four points, albeit having played a game more.

It represented Liverpool's biggest win at United since 1936 and could yet trigger an amazing championship revival.

Liverpool were the ones who needed the win and there appeared an extra sharpness about them from the start, especially Torres who gave the Red Devils defence a torrid time.

Once Jamie Carragher had recovered his composure after being unsettled by a late switch to right-back because of Alvaro Arbeloa's late withdrawal, they had the edge in vital areas, the hosts no better than their nervy first-half display against Inter Milan in midweek.

Indeed, it was a surprise when United went ahead.

Pepe Reina read Carlos Tevez's through ball for Park Ji-sung well enough but came out too quickly for his own good. When the South Korean nicked the ball away, the Liverpool keeper could not stop.

And though Reina pleaded for leniency, referee Alan Wiley correctly pointed to the spot.

Ronaldo is not the type of player to waste such opportunities and duly dispatched his 17th goal of the season.

Had Sir Alex Ferguson's men been able to hold their advantage for a decent length of time, the visitors might have panicked. But five minutes later Liverpool were level thanks to a rare mistake from Nemanja Vidic.

The Serbian has been virtually foot perfect this season, so much so that he is favourite to win the PFA player of the year award.

But first Vidic let Martin Skrtel's long punt forward bounce when he could have headed it back into the Liverpool half quite easily. Then, he failed to deal with the loose ball, allowing Torres to nip in and streak clear, beating Edwin van der Sar with clinical efficiency.

Conceding one goal was amazing enough for the Red Devils, yet before half-time Liverpool had scored again.

Hull were the last team to score more than once against United in Premier League combat - and that was four-and-a-half months ago.

But when Torres tried to send Gerrard racing into the box and Patrice Evra mis-timed his tackle, the Liverpool skipper found he converted his penalty with the same confidence Ronaldo had shown earlier.

Gerrard's glee was obvious. And Liverpool's lead was fully deserved, condemning Ferguson to his first interval rallying call in league combat at Old Trafford all season.

The Scot injected a greater sense of urgency into his team, even if there was no improvement in their retention of the ball.

Carrick in particular was having a pretty bad day, twice putting his side in danger with wayward passes.

United at least managed to generate some momentum, with Tevez almost getting on the end of a Wayne Rooney knock-back and then rolling a shot on the turn just wide.

Having expressed his 'hatred' of Liverpool earlier in the week, the last thing Rooney wanted was to suffer an immediate defeat and a chance for Gerrard - a long-time friend - to gloat.

Yet as time ticked by, that was the fate Rooney was condemned to, especially as Ferguson waited until less than 20 minutes remained before he made the introductions of Dimitar Berbatov, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs.

It is the kind of strength Benitez does not have and one of the major reasons why Liverpool have found themselves on the wrong end of a 14-point swing in fortunes since United returned from their Club World Cup campaign in Japan just before Christmas.

What Liverpool have managed to do this season is beat Chelsea and United, against both of whom they have now registered 'doubles'.

Any hope United had, evaporated within a minute of Ferguson's spectacular triple substitution as another woeful first touch, again from Vidic, left the Serbian little alternative other than to haul down Gerrard.

For the second successive game against Liverpool, it brought Vidic a red card and he was still making his way down the tunnel when Aurelio curled home a superb free-kick.

And Liverpool were not finished as Andrea Dossena lobbed Van der Sar to complete a memorable win, whose significance remains unknown.

Liverpool And Spain Heading For Collision Course Over Fernando Torres

Liverpool striker Fernando Torres looks set to become embroiled in a club-versus-country row over his involvement in the Confederations Cup this summer.

The Spaniard has returned to form with a bang recently, after suffering an injury-plagued season that has restricted his appearances for Liverpool.

Yet goals against Real Madrid and Manchester United have seen ‘El Nino’ back to his very best, as the Reds have stormed into the quarter-finals of the Champions League and reignited the Premier League title race.

However, after a busy summer spent winning Euro 2008 with Spain last year, Torres looks set for another short holiday as he is likely to play some part in the Confederations Cup with Spain in June.

This is a scenario the Anfield outfit are reportedly less than happy with and, after watching Torres pick up several injuries on international duty, the club are adamant that he needs a complete rest at the end of the season.

This appears unlikely should, as is expected, Torres feature in the Confederations Cup and it may lead to conflict between club and country.

The News of the World reports that Liverpool are hoping Torres misses the tournament and quote a ‘Kop source’ as saying, “The Confederations Cup is the last thing Fernando needs this summer.

“It means he won’t get the long holiday and rest he needs.

“No one will try to stop Fernando playing in the competition, but everyone hopes he’ll make a sensible decision if he’s not fully fit.”

The former Athletico Madrid star has made just 12 Premier League starts for Liverpool this season, netting eight times.

Benitez: We Must Win Every Battle

Rafael Benitez has set Liverpool the target of winning all their remaining nine games if they want to wrestle the Premier League title away from Manchester United.

The Reds recorded their biggest win at Old Trafford since 1936 as they completed a 4-1 rout of Sir Alex Ferguson's men, who had Nemanja Vidic sent off near the end. It cut United's lead at the Premier League summit to four points, although they retain a game in hand.

"We have beaten Real Madrid and Manchester United in the same week," observed the Liverpool boss. "If we can beat them, we can beat anybody."

He added: "Realistically, we have to win all of our games. But part of winning the war is winning football matches.

"We have more belief and more confidence now. It will be difficult but we can do it."

Liverpool's win was more remarkable given Cristiano Ronaldo put the hosts in front from the penalty spot midway through the first half after Pepe Reina had sent Park Ji-sung tumbling.

But goals from Fernando Torres, a Steven Gerrard brace and Andrea Dossena's late lob capped a fine performance.

"Torres and Gerrard are obviously key players for us," admitted Benitez. "When they are on the pitch the rest of the team has more confidence."

It was a particularly pleasing result for Benitez given his recent outburst at Ferguson, now known as 'Rafa's rant'. Although it has been widely interpreted as a moment of folly, the Liverpool manager stands by his comments.

"What I said were facts," he said. "I did not say anything that wasn't true. Sir Alex Ferguson is a great manager and I have a lot of respect for him. But I have to defend my club."

Liverpool Defeat Hard To Take, Admits Sir Alex Ferguson

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson admitted he was bitterly disappointed after seeing his side thrashed 4-1 by bitter rivals Liverpool at Old Trafford.

The champions took the lead in the game courtesy of a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty.

However, goals by Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard, Fabio Aurelio and Andrea Dossena sealed Liverpool’s win.

Speaking to the club’s official website, Sir Alex conceded he was still smarting from the loss but insisted his side will bounce back.

“It’s a hard one to take,” said the United manager.

“But at this club it’s always about how you respond to a defeat. When you lose a game: respond. And that is what we will do.”

A mistake by Nemanja Vidic allowed Torres to equalise and the Serbian was later sent off for a foul on Steven Gerrard.

Yet Ferguson refused to point the finger of blame at his defender but conceded he had deserved to see red.

“Nemanja has been unbelievably consistent for us with his performances this season,” said the Scot.

“Players do have off days, and he’s made a mistake. He’s a human being, all players make mistakes. It’s just a costly one for us.

“It looked as if [Gerrard] was clear to have a shot at goal, whether Rio could have got across, I don’t know.

“I don’t think I could really argue with the decision to be honest. We’d have been looking for a red card if it was against us.”

The result reduces United’s gap at the top of the table to four points, albeit with a game in hand, and Sir Alex admitted it had been a bad day for the Red Devils.

“Quite rightly if you win 4-1 at Old Trafford you deserve all the plaudits, you can’t deny Liverpool that,” he said.

“But if the league was starting today, you’d take a four-point advantage with a game in hand.

“The goal difference is narrowed, it’s only five goals now. It was a bad day, but we have to kick on now. It was a bad day in terms of the goals we lost.”

Torres Is Key To Title - Gerrard

Steven Gerrard believes Liverpool can still win the Premier League, provided that Fernando Torres stays fit. The Liverpool captain hailed the scorer of their equaliser in the 4-1 win against Manchester United as the best player in the world.

"He's magic," Gerrard said. "I know I'm going to be biased but I don't think that anyone will argue against me that he's the best striker in the world. If we keep him fit from now to the end of the season it's going to be an exciting finish."

This was only the ninth time Gerrard and the Spanish striker have played together in the league, mainly because of Torres's injury problems. "It's frustrating not having him out there and playing alongside him," Gerrard said. "We have a good understanding. I believe that if we'd had him for more games we'd be closer or even in front of United."

"If we can play like that every week we can win more games and maybe win something else," Torres said. "Except it might be difficult to play like that every week."

Rafa Benítez had the last laugh on his United counterpart Sir Alex Ferguson – or at least he would have done had the Liverpool manager been willing to crack so much as a smile in his moment of victory.

This was the first meeting of the two managers since the dossier of complaints Benítez produced at the start of the year raised the stakes even higher than usual in the North West derby, yet not even sticking four goals on United and Real Madrid in the same week brought any outward sign of pleasure. Just as the Liverpool manager does not celebrate goals on the touchline he refuses to bask in the glory of a magnificent result, preferring to heap praise on his players and let the supporters do the singing and dancing.

"As a manager you have to be pleased with such a result, but a manager cannot win any game without good players," Benítez said, in response to being asked why he looked so glum. "The most important thing today was three points, not my first win at Old Trafford. It is still going to be very difficult to win the league from this position, we would have to win every game and hope United lose some, but at least we have more confidence. If we can beat Real Madrid and we can beat Manchester United then clearly we can beat anyone."

Of Gerrard and Torres's partnership, he added: "They are very big for us, when they are both on the pitch the team has more confidence. Consequently it is a big loss when one of them is missing, and that has happened too often this season. I want to congratulate all my team though. Our plan was to stop the United players who run between the lines, and that's what we did. We knew we had to win, we had no other option."

Ferguson put United's heaviest home defeat for 17 years (Queens Park Rangers, same score, New Year's Day 1992) down to a bad day at the office. "It was an off day, we made mistakes, and I didn't expect that," Ferguson said. "We accept we had a bad day in terms of the goals we lost but I don't think we played all that badly. The important thing now is to respond."

Steven Gerrard Gets His Revenge On Man Utd

Steven Gerrard admitted he was delighted to ram Manchester United's taunts back down their throats after he netted his first Liverpool goal at Old Trafford.

Gerrard thumped home the penalty which handed Liverpool the lead before they romped to a stunning 4-1 victory at the home of the Premier League champions and leaders.

And Gerrard admitted: "I have been lucky enough to experience winning here before but to score was nice - after all the stick I've had from Man United fans over the last 10 years, it was good to rub it in a bit.

"It is not often you see United getting beaten 4-1 at home - and hopefully this result will give other teams belief and prove to them that United are not unbeatable.

"They are a great team with great players, that is why they have been on such a great winning run, but we put in a great performance and the confidence is growing throughout all our side."

Liverpool had hammered Real Madrid 4-0 in the Champions League just four days earlier - but Rafa Benitez insists he will only be satisfied by winning trophies, not by emphatic individual results.

The Anfield chief said: "It's been a good week but the best weeks are when you win trophies. Beating Real Madrid and Man United are just two battles in the war.

"It is always very difficult to beat United and to score four goals against them is even more difficult but we have showed what can be done against them." Liverpool are still four points behind United, who have a game in hand. But Benitez said: "I am always realistic, but I'm optimistic too. I know United are still in a very strong position but in football anything is possible, so we could win every game.

"We've shown that United can be beaten if you contain them and keep things tight."

Asked about Sir Alex Ferguson's claim that United had been the better side, Benitez insisted the result was everything.

Benitez said: "Sometimes you are the better team and you win, sometimes you are the better team and you lose - but 1-4 is all that matters.

"After the first 30 minutes, I thought we played well and deserved the result. I'm very proud and pleased for the players, the fans and the club - but we have to continue with this form."

Ferguson promised his United side will bounce back. The Manchester United boss was clearly shellshocked after watching his side take a 22nd-minute lead through Cristiano Ronaldo's penalty - then concede four goals as Liverpool roared back through, Fernando Torres, Gerrard, Fabio Aurelio and Andrea Dossena.

Ferguson, who saw Nemanja Vidic sent off for a professional foul on Gerrard after 75 minutes, was defiant later, saying: "It's a hard one to take, but at this club it's always about how you respond. And we will, in the right way.

"It was one of those days. We made uncharacteristic mistakes and in big games you don't want to do that. If you see the consistency of our defending over the last two years, you don't expect it.

"But if the League was starting today I would take a four-point start.

The goal difference has narrowed to five but we have to kick on.

"We accept it was a bad day in terms of the goals we lost but I couldn't fault the display that much.""

Ferguson bizarrely claimed United were the better side - but he was critical of poor defending from his side who have built their challenge for five trophies this season on a mean back four. He said: "In terms of defending the last couple of years we didn't expect that kind of performance, and neither did the players.

"I thought we were really the better team but the scoreline didn't reflect that.

"But that's the name of the game, and when you win 4-1 at Old Trafford you deserve all the plaudits and you can't deny them that."

Ferguson refused to hammer Vidic, who gifted Fernando Torres an equaliser in a poor personal display by the Serbian.

"Nemanja has been unbelievably consistent for us this season. Players do have off-days," added Ferguson.

"He's a human being, all players make mistakes. It's just that this was a costly one for us."

And he had no complaints about Vidic's dismissal, saying: "It looked as if Gerrard was clear to have a shot at goal.

"Whether Rio could have got across, I don't know, but I couldn't really argue with the decision. We'd have been looking for a red card if it was against us.

"One or two of the players were a bit short in terms of what we expect but in general the football was good.

"The players kept driving on and showed good energy considering we only had two and a half days to prepare after Inter Milan."

Streetfighters Turn Tables On Front - Runners In Danger Of Losing Their Sheen

A recent review of Bruce Springsteen's latest album posited that The Boss is at his best when he has something to rail against. Liverpool are a bit like that. The job of league leaders suits them less well than the role of street fighters attacking the more rich and powerful.

Defiance is a deep strain in the culture on Merseyside. The Kop is a monument to resistance, in name and spirit. The defining expression of Liverpool's talent for overturning hierarchies was the great comeback in Istanbul, when they were 3-0 down to AC Milan at half-time in the 2005 Champions League final but won the game on penalties. The phoenix, more than the Liver bird, is their ornithological symbol. Only when Manchester United had pulled seven points clear in the Premier League title race did Rafa Benítez's men find a performance from the gods.

Whatever the odds were on Liverpool scoring eight against Real Madrid and the world and European champions inside five days, no punter would have taken them. The form book would have whispered dark truths about the post-Christmas draws with Stoke and Wigan and the defeat at Middlesbrough four days after they had beaten Real inside the Bernabeu.

Both Liverpools should go away for the weekend and try to come back as one. If they could translate their stomping form in the biggest tests to routine assignments then the 19-year wait for a domestic league title might have ended long ago. Proving that being backed into a corner is their favourite, masochistic mode, they went one down to a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty before swarming all over their oldest enemies, who have suddenly lost their sheen.

Against Internazionale in midweek, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs took a managerial rocket for their profligacy with the ball. Surrendering possession is a felony here and United were guilty of it often enough against Italy's champions to suggest that a rampant run of victories was drawing to a close.

This 4-1 thumping confirms that impression. It brought United's biggest home defeat since New Year's Day, 1992, when they were hammered by QPR. In two games, the diamond-precision of their passing has fallen away, the effervescence has dropped. This is entirely routine in a 38-game league campaign. But with Chelsea resurgent under Guus Hiddink and Liverpool back in iconoclastic mood, United will aim to bury the memory of two unconvincing displays and return to the heights of their 4-0 demolition of Fulham in the FA Cup.

That chance is only days away, because they go back to Craven Cottage on Saturday, while Liverpool face a much tougher trial at home to Aston Villa. "When you lose a game, respond. That's what we'll do," Ferguson said.

Specifically, Scholes, Giggs, Patrice Evra, Ronaldo and Michael Carrick are becalmed. Confronting Liverpool activates the self-destruct button in Nemanja Vidic, who was sent off in the corresponding fixture at Anfield and who, this time, allowed a long ball to bounce over his shoulder for Fernando Torres to score before being dismissed again for pulling Steven Gerrard down.

To think that "Rafa's rant" on 9 January against Sir Alex Ferguson's alleged power over referees caused Liverpool to go jelly-kneed at the top of the table is fanciful. Players do not read quotes from their leader and then decide to start drawing and losing games. Managerial milkiness was not the right diagnosis for Benítez's lament. It was badly timed, theatrical and pointless because it gave Ferguson a chance to mock his rival, but that sheet of A4 paper was no suicide note.

A more convincing explanation is that Liverpool found the unfamiliarity of their position at the head of the table anxiety-inducing, while the squad lacked the depth required to sustain Benítez's weakness for rotation. To be fully effective, Liverpool need Fernando Torres to be sizzling, as he was yesterday, haunting Vidic and Rio Ferdinand with twisting, flowing runs. Liverpool's equaliser may have appeared routine, but it required Torres to finish from a challenging angle against the normally impregnable Edwin van der Sar.

"Eleven v eleven, we were men today. It's not very often you see Man Utd get beat 4-1 at home," reflected Gerrard. Liverpool have now beaten Chelsea and United home and away and destroyed Real Madrid. To incite them to rebellion is fatal. "European Capital of Trophies" announced one United banner: an obvious play on Liverpool's role last year as European Capital of Culture. The joke self-detonated.

All through this campaign the probability of United drawing level with Liverpool on 18 league title wins has rumbled backstage. The red half of Merseyside still hold the initiative in European Cups won (5-3), but the 18 league championships have assumed a mighty psychological weight in the face of United's relentless advance.

Ferguson denies that leveling the score has been "a target", but it must drift through his dreams. Ending Liverpool's hegemony was his first task before Arsenal and Chelsea were lined up for the Glasgow kiss.

To the neutral it felt as if a remorseless machine had been halted, if only for a few days, and that Liverpool have recovered their poise after a couple of months of creeping neurosis. The title race became a test of character again instead of a procession.

Anfield Skipper Wants To Avoid Playing On Hillsborough Anniversary

Steven Gerrard has made a heartfelt plea to UEFA to ensure Liverpool avoid playing on the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster.

The Anfield skipper lost a 10-year-old cousin among the 96 people crushed to death at the Leppings Lane End in 1989. And he is uncomfortable with the prospect of playing a Champions League quarter-final, second leg on April 15.

Gerrard said: “Our preference would be not to play on the anniversary. It should be a time that Liverpool FC remembers the people lost and their families.

“But if we are told to play, we will play. We just hope UEFA show some common sense.”

Liverpool have never had to play on the anniversary before but UEFA have so far offered no guarantees.

Spanish Giants Set For Summer Swoop

Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso have been targeted by Real Madrid in a £100million swoop.

The Spanish giants made the first moves for the Kop pair after they were humiliated at Anfield on Tuesday.

The nine-time European Cup winners are ready to value Gerrard at £80m after his display in their 4-1 demolition.

A summer upheaval is on the cards at the Bernabeu with former president Florentino Perez ready to assume control in the club elections.

And he has already drawn up a short-list of targets to pin to his ballot paper.

Gerrard is top of that list and the president-elect also wants his Anfield midfield partner Alonso to join him in the Spanish capital.

The England midfielder’s outstanding two-goal display against Madrid in midweek prompted Real legend Zinedine Zidane to acclaim him the best player in the world.

Significantly, Zidane is in line to become Real’s sporting director under the Perez presidency, working alongside current AC Milan boss Carlo Ancelotti.

Any move for Gerrard looks certain to be resisted by Liverpool and the skipper is committed to finishing his career on Merseyside.

But that won’t stop Madrid trying to prize him away for £80m if they sense his growing frustration with Liverpool’s ongoing internal squabbles and inability to end their title drought.

Ironically, Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez was believed to be the main target for Madrid but now it’s the Reds’ skipper who is their priority.

Gerrard has two years left on his Anfield deal and is due for renewed terms at the end of this season.

He has repeatedly made it clear he wants to stay at the club and complete his medal collection with an elusive Premier League title. But the club’s owners have also been consistently warned to end the in-fighting which has plagued Liverpool.

Gerrard has made no secret of his frustration with the public spats.

The Reds captain will turn 29 in May, ironically the same age as Zidane when he left Juventus for the Spanish capital.

Madrid will have high hopes of tempting midfielder Alonso back to Spain for £20m, especially as Benitez is expected to re-ignite his interest in Aston Villa’s Gareth Barry.