Manchester United vs Liverpool. Aon vs Standard Chartered. Nike vs Adidas. The warm, sticky smell of testosterone and hubris hangs large in the air this afternoon for this match, but all is not well at either Old Trafford or Anfield. Manchester United are still unbeaten since the start of the season, but they are a curiously unsatisfactory team this season so far. Late goals at Craven Cottage and Goodison Park have denied them four points in the Premier League, whilst they were unable to break down an obstinate but limited Rangers team in their opening Champions League match. Unbeaten but occasionally uninspiring, it is difficult to see where season is headed next. While this is going on, the Glazer family don’t look like they are going anywhere. There are green and gold scarves on display at Old Trafford again this afternoon, but these are really now just a fashion statement and little more. The moment, for that particular protest, feels as if it has been and gone.
Liverpool, meanwhile, seem to be finding this season even more difficult than the last. A comfortable win against Steaua Bucharest on Thursday night applied a sticking plaster to their season so far, but with just one win and two goals in four Premier League matches (and that one win being a singularly unconvincing 1-0 win against West Bromwich Albion), the pressure hasn’t taken long to start mounting upon Roy Hodgson. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, issues relating the long-term future of the club still haven’t been resolved and the latest insult to Liverpool supporters is the rumoured return of Tom Hicks Jr, whose insults to a Liverpool supporter in an email exchange said as much as needs to be said about the contempt with which the club’s customers are treated as needs to be said.
As such, Liverpool are more entertaining as a soap opera off the pitch than they are upon it at the moment, and Manchester United spend the first forty-five minutes encamped in the Liverpool half of the pitch, although they genuinely threaten rarely. They muster several half-chances that don’t trouble Pepe Reina too much, but this feels like an encampment and little else. On the rare occasions that Liverpool do venture into the Manchester United half, they are snuffed out and the ball is swept away from danger. With three minutes of the half left, however, they do finally get half a chance and take it. Ryan Giggs sweeps a corner over from the left-hand side and Dimitar Berbatov drops off his marker and heads past the despairing hands of Pepe Reina and Paul Konchesky on the Liverpool goal line. What looks like a clear handball by Jamie Carragher is then missed by the referee and Wayne Rooney drags a shot wide. Half-time comes with it all having been Manchester United, but it’s hardly been the greatest advertisement for the Premier League that the world has ever seen.
In the second half, however, the match picks up and, as matches between Manchester United and Liverpool have a tendency to, the script goes out of the window as it wears on. It starts very much as the first half ended, with Manchester United swarming forward in search of a second goal. Reina saves well from Berbatov’s toe poke, but it’s only a matter of respite for a battered looking Liverpool defence. Nani crosses from the right hand side. It doesn’t look as if there should be any immediate danger, but Berbatov, on the penalty spot, takes one touch to control the ball and then executes a perfect overhead kick, in off the underside of the crossbar to double United’s lead.
That should really be that, but Manchester United still have neuroses of their own and in the space of ten minutes they hand a route back into the game back to Liverpool on a plate. First up, Johnny Evans hauls Fernando Torres to the ground to give Liverpool a penalty, which Steven Gerrard converts with ease. Then, John O’Shea drags Torres to the ground just outside the penalty area and is lucky to escape with only a yellow card for his troubles. For Manchester United, however, respite is brief. Steven Gerrard’s free-kick is some way short of the greatest that he will ever take, but it squeezes through the wall and into the corner. From quite literally out of nowhere, Liverpool have managed to pull themselves back into the match and yet again sloppy Manchester United defending looks as if it might have thrown two points away.
This time, however, Berbatov conjures something up to rescue the day for Manchester United. With seven minutes left to play, O’Shea crosses to the far post from the right hand side and he gets ahead of Carragher – again – to nod the ball past Reina to give Manchester United the lead again and this time there is no way back for Liverpool. Berbatov has, of course, come in for considerable criticism since he moved to Old Trafford and his very gait seems likely to bring him criticism when he is not scoring goals regularly. Today, though, he has stolen the show with a performance of rare virtuosity that single-handedly rescued his team. His defenders, in particular, owe him a debt of gratitude today.
Where do Liverpool go from here? They’re stuck with what they have until the new year transfer window and what the situation will be regarding their ownership by then remains anybody’s guess. After five games, they remain out of the relegation places by only one point. At what point does an early season blip become something more troubling? Manchester United, meanwhile, remain unbeaten and, in all honesty, they were never in much danger of losing that record this afternoon. Losing a lead in this style, however, must remain a concern for Alex Ferguson and whether they will be able to cling onto Chelsea’s coat-tails if their defensive line remains as porous as it has been in recent weeks is questionable. For today, though, it may have just felt like enough for Manchester United supporters to have stuck one over Liverpool again.