United get their big prize

Liverpool’s defeat against Manchester United came as a huge frustration to the Reds, with Liverpool clearly controlling the game. Manchester United looked to be happy to settle for a draw, their rare attacking moves only coming on the break.

At the end the excitement proved to be far too much for Gary Neville to take, and he must surely now be expecting an FA charge after he went over to the Liverpool supporters to show them his badge in what is usually described as incitement. Neville has made it clear on many occasions just how much he hates Liverpool – the city as much as the club – and must find it hard to share a dressing room with Wayne Rooney, who just hates Liverpool the club. If Neville doesn’t face an FA charge, or at least an investigation, then Sven Goran Eriksson’s revelations this weekend don’t even scrape the surface of what is wrong in English football.

Manchester United supporters added to the bad feelings with sickening taunts and even more sickening gestures about Hillsborough. Some Liverpool fans angrily responded with chants they should have avoided, but that hatred from Old Trafford needs to be looked at. The protests during the summer from United fans unwilling to see their club taken over by Americans showed how nasty some of these supporters are prepared to be, but the majority of their fans must be ashamed at the actions of the rest.

Manchester United are one of Liverpool’s biggest rivals. The rivalry is different to that with Everton, and arguably not as great, but it’s pretty strong rivalry. In a purely footballing sense the rivalry between Liverpool and United is much stronger than that between the two Merseyside clubs. To simplify things a little, United were successful in the sixties and the nineties, Liverpool even more successful in the seventies and eighties. Liverpool are the current European Champions, after taking their fifth title last May, and are through to the last sixteen of this season’s competition. United ended last season without a trophy and are out of this season’s Champions League. For United’s players and supporters it seemed that this was a cup final to them.

For Liverpool’s manager Rafael Benítez the defeat was extremely disappointing, not just because of who it was against, but because of what Liverpool missed out on: “It is always bad to lose a game – you must be disappointed, but when you concede a goal in the last minute to your rivals when you are trying to get second place you must be very disappointed.”

Rafael Benítez plans things to the finest detail; when games aren’t quite working out as they should he will change small details so that they do work out. The last minute goal gave him no time to change anything: “We were controlling the game and did a good job keeping the ball and playing good counter attacks but to lose a goal from a free-kick in the last minute is very disappointing. Always the small details can make the difference. We had chances to win the game.”

It was these missed chances that were one of the main reasons for Rafa’s disappointment in the immediate aftermath of the game. One person in particular was singled out: “Cisse had a great chance when he was in front of the goal under no pressure. We need to finish the chances we create but all we can do now is concentrate on the next game. We know we have those games in hand – and we have to keep going. I am not looking at the league table and my concern is my team and how we are progressing.”

Rafa’s disappointment at the missed chances was matched by his disappointment at the defensive mistakes made to let the opposition score: “We defended that free-kick badly but we had a good game in terms of controlling the game – we created some clear chances and counter-attacks. They are a good team and it was difficult but we were trying to win.”

For United it was the turn of assistant coach Carlos Queiroz. A compatriot of Benítez and a failed manager of Benítez’s favourite Spanish club Real Madrid, Queiroz seemed to have been watching a different match. He said the game went exactly to plan: “We worked hard as a team and played 90 minutes with one thing in our mind, which was to score one goal and not to allow Liverpool to score.”

United’s ground staff watered one half of the pitch at half time to benefit their team – perhaps something else for the FA to look at – and Queiroz said United changed their game after this had been done: “Both teams were very rigid with their systems and their movement in the first half but in the second half we opened up the game because we knew if we didn’t take risks it would be impossible to score. That is exactly what we did. The players knew we had to go forward and create space and put the ball behind the Liverpool defence.”

In fact United were under the cosh for most of that second half, and if Crouch hadn’t had to leave after an hour of the game with an injury maybe Liverpool would have scored. Cisse had left his shooting boots elsewhere and never looked like scoring, or for that matter understanding what his team mates were doing. This was a bad game for the Frenchman, who is capable of much better.

Bizarrely, United’s assistant says that Liverpool didn’t have control of the game at all – they just though they had control as part of United’s game plan. Queiroz said: “We knew that by giving them the apparent control of the game we were able to create more space and counter attack and find the right moments and the right places to damage Liverpool and I think it worked.”

When we first heard these comments we laughed, but now we’re just hoping that the United team genuinely believe it all to be true. Especially when Queiroz added the following: “Our goal came in the last minute but we had another opportunity before then too. The plan worked, we did well and we deserved to win.” So their plan to beat Liverpool was to create two chances in ninety minutes and hope one went in. Well done Carlos – we hope you continue to create two chances every game. We are sure you’ll do well with that policy. And Real Madrid could be back on the phone too at any time.

Liverpool v United games have always been significant, but there was a strange feeling today of this being just another game. The disappointment of losing to Manchester United didn’t feel as bad as losing to Fulham all those games ago. It was disappointing, but not in the usual way after a Liverpool v United game. Maybe it’s because of going so long unbeaten. Maybe it was because the prize of beating United in a league fixture isn’t as big as it has been these last 15 years. For United though it looks like it is now their big prize.