Patrice Evra came within Nemanja Vidić’s whiskers of scoring at the Stretford End on Sunday – the goal that effectively secured Manchester United’s victory against Liverpool. While the Frenchman is unlikely to be credited with a fifth goal of an increasingly productive season, after his header deflected in off the Serbian’s face, there is little doubt that another three points against the old rivals is particularly satisfying. For Evra, Sir Alex Ferguson, and United’s legion of supporters.
Evra’s victorious emergence from his ongoing personal battle with Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez aside, three points at Old Trafford on Sunday leaves the Reds seven clear of Manchester City in the Premier League – and a full 24 ahead of Brendan Rodgers’ visitors. That is commanding either side of the equation.
Still, Ferguson’s side didn’t have the afternoon entirely its own way in a performance as protean as any this season. United’s fine first half effort morphed during the second period into something altogether more “desperate,” as the Scot put it in the aftermath. It has become the pattern of recent encounters with the Merseyside club, although no repeat of Liverpool’s FA Cup victory last season.
Despite retrenching in search of safety during the final stages, with the points tantalisingly in sight, Ferguson’s was much the better side for much of the opening hour at Old Trafford. It was a period of domination in which the home side should have scored “three or four” according to the 71-year-old manager; one of attacking variety and midfield control.
Danny Welbeck proffered dynamic support of opening goalscorer Robin van Persie, while Michael Carrick controlled the game’s tempo with such precision that the Englishman’s detractors – on the terraces and in the media – must increasingly baffle even a neutral audience. If this wasn’t Xavi-esque, nothing is.
As it turned out the fluency of United’s opening strike – the ball moving at speed between Welbeck, Tom Cleverley, Patrice Evra and scorer van Persie – was the summit of the hosts’ ambitions, and not a base on which comprehensive victory was built. It is a failing that should irk Ferguson, no matter the glow of victory over the old rivals.
“All in all, it was an engrossing game, as we expected in a Manchester United-Liverpool match,” said Ferguson on Sunday.
“It’s full of emotion, intensity and it’s great to win. It was a magnificent performance in the first half, as well as we’ve played for a long time. It was hard work after they scored, to be honest with you, and I’m just glad we won the match.
“I think winning is important – it doesn’t matter what league position we are in. I’ve said many times, it’s a fantastic challenge between the two most successful teams in the country. I think those three points today are very, very important ones.”
After all, those points are a panacea against Liverpool – a side with the habit of raising its game against Ferguson’s outfit. As if to prove the point, Suárez ran the channels tirelessly, while Gerrard hunted down every loose ball with a hunger that belies the Merseysiders’ eighth place in the Premier League. The pair, together with substitute Daniel Sturridge, dragged the visitors back into the match during a frantic second period.
Indeed, Liverpool controlled the game’s tempo in addition to monopolising possession during the second 45. No wonder Ferguson eventually sacrificed Shinji Kagawa for Phil Jones with just over 10 minutes to go. That United’s manager had built caution into a tactical system that nominally had the Japanese operating from the left of the midfield was prescient in any case.
Yet, Ferguson will take much from the game even if United’s performance in the second felt short of the Reds’ very best. Not least the performances of Welbeck and Carrick, who contributed much to United’s victory. After all, Carrick’s mature control is now at its very peak, while Welbeck continues to perform despite a frustrating lack of goals.
Welbeck has, with some contradiction, both been limited in his contribution this season, and yet involved in the joint most games for the club this season. That 14 of Welbeck’s 24 appearances have come from the bench says much for competition in forward areas, and also for Ferguson’s determination to involve the 22-year-old despite van Persie’s acquisition.
“Danny was fantastic. I thought he gave them a real hard day of it, the two centre-backs,”
“He and Robin, particularly in the first half, gave them a very difficult time. The reason Danny played was because we wanted someone who would drop on top of their centre-midfield player. He did that well and put in a great shift. He ran his legs off today and deserved the Man of the Match award.”
Victory also keeps the gap at seven ahead of Manchester City despite the Blues’ victory at Arsenal. Roberto Mancini’s men have now secured maximum points in five of their past six matches – a run that will fill the Blues with confidence despite the gap.
United’s advantage is significant, but less than City overhauled last season. Little wonder Mancini professed confidence that his team can still beat United to the Premier League title come May.
And it could be a another pivotal brace of matches in United’s hunt for English title 20 next weekend. City faces Fulham at home, while Ferguson’s side faces Tottenham Hotspur in London.
In the meantime United’s manager, players – especially Evra – will sleep easily tonight.