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Last chance saloon for stuttering United

Alan Smith injured V Liverpood

Liverpool 1 Man Utd 0
By Ian Winrow, Anfield
SO that’s it, then.

Manchester United’s future now effectively hinges on next Sunday’s clash with Wigan Athletic, a team that until recently could only dream of being mentioned in the same breath as the Old Trafford club.

Alex Ferguson’s side travel to Cardiff for the Carling Cup final knowing a competition once viewed as little more than a testing ground for the club’s latest crop of hopeful youngsters is their only chance of silverware this season.

And no matter what spin Ferguson attempts to put on United’s faltering season, this painful FA Cup Fifth Round defeat at Anfield offered little to suggest his team are deserving of much better.

The awful injury to Alan Smith quite rightly occupied minds immediately after the final whistle and Ferguson’s comments that the sight of the midfielder being stretchered off with his left ankle horrifically deformed put the game into perspective were welcome - especially after the ongoing feud between Gary Neville and the Liverpool supporters had added a poisonous edge to predictably charged atmosphere.

But when thoughts turned back to the game there was little doubt that this clash added further ammunition to those who claim the Premiership’s north west power-base is shifting inexorably towards Merseyside. United may still enjoy supremacy in the race to finish runners-up to Chelsea and certainly reveled in their victory at Old Trafford last month, but it is Liverpool who are still in Europe, still in the FA Cup and laying the convincing foundations of a side capable of moving on to the next stage and sustaining a credible challenge to Jose Mourinho’s side’s dominance next season.

Rafael Benitez may not exude the brash confidence or easy quotability that catapults some managers into the public’s consciousness but he knows how to construct a football team. And at the moment, that is an ability that Ferguson appears to have lost.

For two years, Ferguson has spoken of the need to find a long-term replacement for Roy Keane, a process given added momentum when the former captain broke his foot here last September, hastening his departure and throwing into stark relief United’s lack of midfield resources.

And if anyone had any remaining doubts where United’s weaknesses lie, they were surely blown away by the insipid display of Darren Fletcher, Ryan Giggs, Kieran Richardson and Cristiano Ronaldo. Even without the injured Xabi Alonso, Liverpool still paraded enough craft and steel in that crucial area of the pitch to dominate long periods of the game.

Somehow you can’t imagine Benitez getting himself into a similar predicament. "When I was six, people talking midfield as the key part of the pitch. Now is the same. If you control midfield, you control the game," he said, tellingly.

The tie was decided in the 19th minute when Peter Crouch escaped his marker Nemanja Vidic and headed accurately past Edwin Van der Sar, who could do no more than push the ball against the inside of the post and in.

Ferguson claimed that was the extent of Liverpool’s attacking threat but that disguised the fact that Benitez’s side never looked like they would be forced to go looking for a second goal.

It was Crouch’s first goal of 2006 and provided further vindication for Benitez’s methods. "When I arrived here, I said: ‘Okay, this is my team, how can we improve, two or three things, in one year we can’t change everything’." he explained. "This year we needed to sign three, four different players. When we decided to sign Crouch, people talk that after some games he cannot score. When he scores, he is doing his job. Now he is doing his job."

Having established an early advantage, Liverpool rarely showed signs of allowing United back into the game with Jamie Carragher once again outstanding at centre-back although the woeful service directed towards an increasingly frustrated Ruud van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney played right into the home side’s hands.

LIVERPOOL: Reina, Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise, Gerrard, Hamann, Sissoko, Kewell (Kromkamp 82), Crouch (Cisse 88), Morientes (Luis Garcia 62).

MAN UTD: Van der Sar, Neville, Brown, Vidic, Silvestre (Saha 45), Ronaldo, Fletcher (Smith 76), Giggs, Richardson, Rooney, van Nistelrooy, Smith (Park 90).

Referee: H Webb.

 

Last chance saloon for stuttering United

Alan Smith injured V Liverpood

Liverpool 1 Man Utd 0
By Ian Winrow, Anfield
SO that’s it, then.

Manchester United’s future now effectively hinges on next Sunday’s clash with Wigan Athletic, a team that until recently could only dream of being mentioned in the same breath as the Old Trafford club.

Alex Ferguson’s side travel to Cardiff for the Carling Cup final knowing a competition once viewed as little more than a testing ground for the club’s latest crop of hopeful youngsters is their only chance of silverware this season.

And no matter what spin Ferguson attempts to put on United’s faltering season, this painful FA Cup Fifth Round defeat at Anfield offered little to suggest his team are deserving of much better.

The awful injury to Alan Smith quite rightly occupied minds immediately after the final whistle and Ferguson’s comments that the sight of the midfielder being stretchered off with his left ankle horrifically deformed put the game into perspective were welcome - especially after the ongoing feud between Gary Neville and the Liverpool supporters had added a poisonous edge to predictably charged atmosphere.

But when thoughts turned back to the game there was little doubt that this clash added further ammunition to those who claim the Premiership’s north west power-base is shifting inexorably towards Merseyside. United may still enjoy supremacy in the race to finish runners-up to Chelsea and certainly reveled in their victory at Old Trafford last month, but it is Liverpool who are still in Europe, still in the FA Cup and laying the convincing foundations of a side capable of moving on to the next stage and sustaining a credible challenge to Jose Mourinho’s side’s dominance next season.

Rafael Benitez may not exude the brash confidence or easy quotability that catapults some managers into the public’s consciousness but he knows how to construct a football team. And at the moment, that is an ability that Ferguson appears to have lost.

For two years, Ferguson has spoken of the need to find a long-term replacement for Roy Keane, a process given added momentum when the former captain broke his foot here last September, hastening his departure and throwing into stark relief United’s lack of midfield resources.

And if anyone had any remaining doubts where United’s weaknesses lie, they were surely blown away by the insipid display of Darren Fletcher, Ryan Giggs, Kieran Richardson and Cristiano Ronaldo. Even without the injured Xabi Alonso, Liverpool still paraded enough craft and steel in that crucial area of the pitch to dominate long periods of the game.

Somehow you can’t imagine Benitez getting himself into a similar predicament. "When I was six, people talking midfield as the key part of the pitch. Now is the same. If you control midfield, you control the game," he said, tellingly.

The tie was decided in the 19th minute when Peter Crouch escaped his marker Nemanja Vidic and headed accurately past Edwin Van der Sar, who could do no more than push the ball against the inside of the post and in.

Ferguson claimed that was the extent of Liverpool’s attacking threat but that disguised the fact that Benitez’s side never looked like they would be forced to go looking for a second goal.

It was Crouch’s first goal of 2006 and provided further vindication for Benitez’s methods. "When I arrived here, I said: ‘Okay, this is my team, how can we improve, two or three things, in one year we can’t change everything’." he explained. "This year we needed to sign three, four different players. When we decided to sign Crouch, people talk that after some games he cannot score. When he scores, he is doing his job. Now he is doing his job."

Having established an early advantage, Liverpool rarely showed signs of allowing United back into the game with Jamie Carragher once again outstanding at centre-back although the woeful service directed towards an increasingly frustrated Ruud van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney played right into the home side’s hands.

LIVERPOOL: Reina, Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise, Gerrard, Hamann, Sissoko, Kewell (Kromkamp 82), Crouch (Cisse 88), Morientes (Luis Garcia 62).

MAN UTD: Van der Sar, Neville, Brown, Vidic, Silvestre (Saha 45), Ronaldo, Fletcher (Smith 76), Giggs, Richardson, Rooney, van Nistelrooy, Smith (Park 90).

Referee: H Webb.