Perhaps, and this is a theory that it is impossible to substantiate, Sir Alex Ferguson has come to realise a fundamental truth of football which frequently seems to slip under our radar. It doesn’t matter whether you play well or not. It’s a result-based business and what matters, all that matters, is getting that result. Manchester United were poor at Anfield this afternoon, but when the ball needed to roll for them it rolled for them, when they needed referee Mark Halsey to make misjudgements, they got them. They came away from Anfield this afternoon with all three points, when all bar the most one-eyed could only consider that they might even have deserved none. For Liverpool, meanwhile, luck has become a precious commodity, something that others have while they do not. If it does, as legend would have it, even itself out over the course of a season, Liverpool are due a slice of luck of lottery-winning proportions at some point this season.
First, though, came the preliminaries. Prior to the match, Sir Bobby Charlton presented flowers to Ian Rush, which was followed by a rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone which sent shivers down the spine and almost lifted the roof off the Kop end of the ground whilst mosaics saying “The Truth” and “Justice For The 96” reminded all watching of an issue of greater significance than anything that could happen on the pitch today. The atmosphere was calm and civilised and there was no evidence of anything repulsive being sung. The sound of disappointment from some corners of the fourth estate was almost tangible. With this out of the way, football could get on with being football and, true to form, after all the hype and expectation of the last seven days or so, the two sides served forty-five minutes of tepid football which was punctuated only by a suspect red card which ended up costing Liverpool dear.
There were six minutes left to play of a half which had offered cause for both optimism and frustration for Liverpool when it came. Jonjo Shelvey and Jonny Evans threw themselves full-heartedly into a challenge which saw both of Shelveys legs off the ground and, after an almost theatrical pause by referee Mark Halsey, the red card was brandished and Liverpools job became considerably more difficult than it already had been. It was a somewhat harsh decision – Evans received no sanction for his part in it, which might on another day have earned him a red card – and it came towards the end of a half during which Liverpool had dominated, with now familiar questions being asked of Manchester Uniteds central midfield, or lack thereof. A reasonably constant stream of pressure, however, but for all the pressure and all of Manchester Uniteds apparent lethargy, the half-time whistle came with Liverpool limited to victory in the possession statistics and half-chances only.
Fifty seconds into the second half, however, Manchester Uniteds defensive shortcomings gifted Liverpool the lead. The decision to leave Nemanja Vidic out of the Manchester United team had raised an eyebrow or two, and when Steven Gerrard was allowed to swivel and drive a low shot wide of the Manchester United goalkeeper Lindegaard and into the left-hand corner of the net it looked more curious still. Anfield, of course, exploded with joy, but this excitement barely lasted for five minutes, until Kagawa chested the ball down for Rafael to bend an unstoppable shot round Reina and in off the post. For all of this, however, Manchester United continued to look listless, but Liverpool were unable to convert their possession into anything more meaningful and with fifteen minutes to play they were caught with a devastating sucker punch.
It was the softest of penalty kick awards. Antonio Valencia broke on the right-hand side and, with Martin Skrtel trying to block a shot, Glen Johnson slide in, made about little contact as it is possible to make with another individual and Halsey pointed to the spot. Following a lengthy delay whilst Daniel Agger received attention – he was subsequently removed on a stretcher – Robin Van Persie stepped up to take the kick, and even here Liverpools luck was out as Reina got a hand on the ball but couldn’t prevent it from flying into the back of the net. In the closing stages of the game, there was tempered uproar when Van Persie was booked rather than sent off for a high challenge on Suso, but the closing stages of the match were perhaps more notable for showing up Liverpools attacking shortcomings. They had ten minutes plus a considerable amount of stoppage time to try and salvage a second goal, but that moment, the one so commonplace for a team that is behind by a goal and is chasing the game, failed to materialise. For all their possession, Liverpool have contrived to lose this match.
None of the delight that Manchester United will obviously feel at their first league win at Anfield in five years, however, should mask that they were fortunate this afternoon, and more than once. The conversation being held over the new central midfield player that this team needs is a relevant as ever, because it seems a stretch to suggest that they can last the full season in a position to challenge for the Premier League title with Ryan Giggs playing there. Perhaps the January transfer window will provide the answer that Manchester United supporters are looking for. Liverpool, meanwhile, have two points from five matches and sit in the relegation places at the bottom of the Premier League season, and no matter how much bad luck they might have had this afternoon the sound of daggers being drawn for Brendan Rodgers will only intensify unless results start improving soon. A huge victory has been won by the club off the pitch this month, one of which the full ramifications remain unclear. In the harsh, unforgiving light of the Premier League, though, the team is stalling, and the question of the extent to which this can solely be defined by bad luck is one that is, broadly speaking, unanswerable. Today, though, lady luck was not smiling upon them, and Liverpools loss was very much Manchester Uniteds gain.
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