On Manchester United (champions) and Liverpool (pretenders)

This is a provocative headline and is fully justified (it’s still true, whether you like it or not) in the article, so read before you blow your wad.

Take away the big names – Manchester United, Liverpool, Ferguson, Benitez, Anfield, Old Trafford, Gerrard, Ronaldo, Torres, Rooney, Carragher, Ferdinand – and look at the game itself.

You had the home team controlling the game without being able to control the outcome – a futile exercise in proving themselves worthy of the label “title contenders” as the visiting team, overpowered but not overwhelmed, under attack but not outmanouvered, stumbling but not falling, put on a display worthy of the tag “champions” as they came, stood up and when the final whistle was blown, were the only ones worth counting.

Spare a few thoughts for the Liverpool back 6 (Reina, the 4 defenders and Mascherano), who had an excellent game. They were undone only twice in the whole game, one of them from a set piece and the other on the break where Rooney’s usually excellent finishing skills deserted him. To give a team boasting the attacking talents of Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez and Giggs just two clear cut chances at goal is a major accomplishment and certainly worthy of praise – for being anally efficient in defence, Liverpool were the better team even if Manchester United did not concede despite being under the cosh far more often.

Everywhere else on the pitch though, Liverpool fell short. Steven Gerrard was reduced to a petty squabble with Anderson and came out second best against a 19-year old, failing to leave his mark on a game when his “dive and free kick / penalty” strategy didn’t pay off. Kewell and Benayoun are decent second-tier wingers and perhaps good for value as part of Liverpool’s second team – however, as first-teamers these two form the weakest wings of the top four Premier League sides and it is a wonder why Rafa Benitez, after three years at the helm, has not been able to solve this problem. Pennant is not the answer, Babel is the only genuine top-notch winger Liverpool have and he was played too late in the game.

Up front, Kuyt and Torres had no way past Rio and Vidic (ably supported by Patrice Evra, who had a stunner of a game), and this is where Manchester United’s quality across the board shown through. From Rooney at one end outjumped and muscling Carragher off high balls (legal challenges where he was deemed to be fouling the Liverpool defender – ridiculous decisions those) to Patrice Evra cleaning up behind Edwin van der Sar and Rio Ferdinand marshaling the Manchester United defence like a king and with Hargreaves and Anderson controlling the midfield despite Mascherano’s best efforts, Manchester United played the game like true champions, never giving up, defending and attacking as a unit and when the chips were down, making crucial saves and taking their chances.

The differences between the two sides are not great – but over 38 games these differences will tell, as they did yesterday at Anfield when pretenders Liverpool came up short against champions Manchester United.

At least one positive thing came out of this match for Rafa Benitez – Mascherano’s performances would have convinced the owners to sign him permanently in January. To not do so and allow other clubs to have a shot at one of Liverpool’s most important players would be ridiculously stupid.

Key Players

Javier Mascherano: An excellent game and if Torres / Gerrard had played with the same verve, Liverpool could have come a lot closer to scoring that first elusive goal against Manchester United in several years.

Rio Ferdinand: With due respect to Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand is the most effective captain Manchester United have. Games of this intensity are the sort Rio Ferdinand lives for – cometh the hour, cometh the man. From the rollicking he handed out to Edwin van der Sar to the way he took care of Torres, never has his value to Manchester United been more evident. He has his doubters – idiots who look at his fun-loving personality off-the-pitch and the unfortunate delay in his contract talks as evidence that he is somehow not loyal or good enough – but for my money, he is the best center-back playing in the Premier League today. The weakest point of his game is the lack of goals he has from set pieces, a point where Terry and to an extent, Gallas, are ahead of him. I don’t think that Ferguson even needs to make him captain, because whether Neville is there or not, it is Rio Ferdinand who is master and commander of the Manchester United defence.

Patrice Evra: I have been very critical of Patrice Evra in the past, and it’s time to admit that he has improved magnificently from the start of last season. Evra was magnificent in defence with his positioning spot on and dangerous when breaking forward (he would have done better with Nani ahead of him but then again Giggs is a better defender than Nani). Where Brown was slightly disappointing, Evra was imposing and kept United in the game.

Anderson: Like Nani earlier this season, Anderson is growing as a key player for Manchester United thanks to the run of games he’s getting in the center of midfield. For Ferguson to replace the likes of Giggs and Scholes in one transfer window, and to do it so effectively, says a lot for Manchester United’s ability to pick the right players (especially when you consider Liverpool’s problems in finding decent wingers).

Future Predictions

Manchester United and Arsenal are my bets to duke it out for the title, although the next four fixtures will give us a better picture of who is going to be on top.

Chelsea will be in there but are now open to losing games to top quality opposition as well as less illustrious rivals, and while you expect to see them in the top four they’ll have to step their game up a bit to hold on to 3rd place.

Liverpool need to buy in the January transfer window if they want a shot at 3rd spot – and as things stand they’re being chased by Manchester City, Everton and Portsmouth, three teams capable of finishing at 4th spot this season.

Ref Watch: Alan Wiley - Arsenal v Chelsea
This is an Arsenal team with balls of steel


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