Questions raised after 'big' fixture
Manchester United maintained its unbeaten start to the Premier League season, but still dropped points in a 1-1 draw Saturday afternoon at Liverpool. In a match alternately mystifying and thrilling, United rarely looked like a championship caliber side on an afternoon when Sir Alex Ferguson gambled by resting most of his attacking guns.
But it will be Liverpool who will be left to rue the points lost: they were the more expansive and attractive team on the afternoon, as they held the lion’s share of possession and forced the issue to keeper David de Gea through the sleek play of Dirk Kuyt and Luis Suarez. Yet, in a game that at times felt overburdened by history, it was not tactics but mistakes that made the difference.
With a Champions League game in Romania on the immediate horizon and the fallout over his star Wayne Rooney’s international suspension by UEFA, Ferguson chose to play a defense-first side in a game that he still considers the most important in club football. Rooney was left on the bench alongside Nani, Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez, Anderson and Antonio Valencia, forcing Danny Welbeck to roam alone up top and Ashley Young to play provider.
Liverpool allowed neither of those players much time on the ball in response, particularly forcing Young into invisibility. And with the Reds’ midfield bossing — but not dominating — the game settled into a funk for much of the first hour. United were content to sit back and defend, with Rio Ferdinand having a particularly impressive first half in the center and Suarez largely left to rue half-chances and balls running a step too far for him.
But Ferdinand’s game took a left turn when he picked up an exceedingly rare booking early in the second half, then was judged to have nicked Charlie Adam after the Liverpool man made a dazzling run down the gut. Andre Marriner could have sent the defender off but was charitable. United’s players didn’t see it that way, with Ferdinand claiming that Adam had dived. It didn’t matter, as Steven Gerrard, in his first full game back for the club, punched the ensuing Reds' free kick right through United wall to score. At fault was Ryan Giggs, who peeled away, opening the gap and leaving de Gea helpless.
And with that came the subs — Nani, Rooney, then Chicharito — and a breathless twenty minutes at the end. Chicharito leveled the game for United when Martin Skrtel was caught ball-watching as Danny Welbeck nodded a corner down to Chicharito to head home. Jordan Henderson forced two brilliant stops by de Gea in the final ten minutes as Kenny Dalglish’s men tried to seize the game back but the chances were palmed out brilliantly by the Spaniard.
Despite the rhetoric, the game raised a few fundamental questions. For United, these would be: is this really the “biggest” fixture for a club when they leave almost all their attacking wealth on the bench? Or isn’t success in Europe — infinitely richer, infinitely more impressive on the world stage — far more important even if your next opponent is the group’s cannon fodder?
Also, how is it that Mr. Rooney can go from being “devastated” pre-game, requiring a sit-down, to being hale and hearty with twenty to play? Finally, what does Dimitar Berbatov have to do to get into a game?
As for Liverpool, there’s one big : how is it that a team with championship aspirations cannot defeat its biggest rival, at home, when they field a weakened team?