Outplayed, outclassed, and most damning of all, out-desired, as Liverpool clearly wanted today's showdown at Anfield more than their fierce northwestern rivals from Manchester. Despite featuring an attacking 4-4-2 lineup on the road -- or maybe because of it -- United was shown the door today and dismissed by a club adrift of the erstwhile league leaders by a mere 21 points entering today's match. Not a single United representative can be spared blame -- not even a manager who may have gotten his tactics wrong on this occasion. In a gutless, soulless display, United were overrun in midfield and outhustled at every corner of the pitch in an emphatic 3-nil beating that threw the title race wide open and may even have swung the outright advantage to an Arsenal side that still has a home game left with the Reds.
There were shockers galore this afternoon and almost too numerous to count: Wes Brown and Chris Smalling repeatedly losing their marks and letting Suarez and Meireles loose with intent in the box; Carrick and Scholes being run over and well off the pace in midfield; Giggs and Nani uninvolved and off the mark; Rafael impetuous and immature; Evra impersonating a new superhero: Captain Invisible; and Berbatov and Rooney struggling to create even the merest whiff of goal. Even the big man in between the sticks for United, Edwin Van der Sar, can't be spared the pointed finger of blame for letting a free kick spill into Dirk Kuyt's onrushing feet (not a United defender within five feet, mind you) to gift the third and final goal to Liverpool.
Perhaps most inexplicable of all the day's errors was Nani's header back toward his own goal when the game's outcome was still in question, the Portuguese winger getting his 15th assist of the season in the form of a header back to Kuyt, which even the Dutchman -- known to miss a shot or two in his time -- could not help but netting for a 2-nil advantage.
Piled on top of a Suarez slalom through the heart of a defense that looked as it it were playing on eggshells, afraid to concede a penalty after the dire ending at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday, the resulting Kuyt goals lit the match at an Anfield primed to explode, and blew the roof straight off Sir Alex's gameplan. My criticism of Nani would be even more vehement if it were not for the shocking tackle that was laid on him but a few minutes later by Jamie Carragher, a renowned dirty footballer if ever there was one. Described by the criminally blind and biased announcing team of John Champion and Craig Burley as "not perfect," Carragher's tackle on Nani was easily a red-card offense and may have changed the direction of the game, if not the final outcome. Champion and Burley go on to further cover themselves in glory by deriding Nani's "dreadful playacting" and everyone involved -- including the announcers and referee Dowd -- somehow manage to miss Liverpool Captain Steven Gerrard pushing Nani back onto the ground and then swatting away at the United winger's bleeding leg.
Completing a week in which debatable call after call went against the United side (possibly due to karma, according to @kkfla737), Phil Dowd continued a run of horrendous refereeing decisions this week by showing Carragher only a yellow card -- clearly a mistake given the vicious nature of the cleat well over the ball and right into Nani's shin, but now equally clearly non-reviewable according to the FA rules. When Maxi Rodrigues and Rafal Da Silva retaliated with tit-for-tat high-footed challenges, either or both could also have been shown the door by Dowd, who preferred to sit back and watch. Of note, however, what Dowd did miss in the near-brawl that followed just before halftime was a Steven Gerrard shove which would have been deemed a foul in any other match, and Luis Suarez showcasing a new talent to his hand-balling and biting repertoire: hair pulling Rafael's long locks in an effort to better show off his feminine side.
It may have been the only thing the Uruguayan did wrong, as he tortured a labored and ineffective United defense repeatedly, and played a part in setting up the shortest hat trick in EPL history, as Kuyt's three goals came from a combined total of three feet in front of the net. Even Chicharito's stoppage time goal which limited the final damage to 3-1 could not bring a smile to the usually ebullient Mexican's face, and it'll be a long week of preparation for a FA Cup clash against the Arsenal next weekend, followed in short order by the Champions League return leg with Marseille at Old Trafford on the Ides of March.
In the equivalent of a time out, the schedule gives United a fortunate breather to regroup and re-assess where this season has begun to go off track. One can only hope that Nani's injury is not as serious as it appears, that Rio Ferdinand is on the mend, and that Valencia and Park make huge leaps in fitness before the run in continues.
For those who believe in self-punishment, my usual write up of the game can be seen below in all its shocking glory. Warning: it's not pretty, or for the faint-hearted. ## ## ## ## ## ## ## ## ##
"It's the Berbarooney show at Anfield this afternoon, as Sir Alex has opted for an attacking 4-4-2 lineup against United's hated rivals from the Northwest. It's doubtful Liverpool will lay down the way they did for Chelsea toward the conclusion of last season, so the onus will be on the Reds from Manchester to gain the advantage in the title race. Both sides concede little in the early going, and it's Suarez with the games first opportunity, the Uruguayan completely unmarked in front of goal, but only able to offer a soft roller straight at Van der Sar. There's lots of room in front of the big Dutchman in the early going, as United's patchwork defense loooks to gain its sea legs. Liverpool apply lots of early pressure in an attempt to unsettle United and gain the lead, although to no avail in the first quarter of an hour. It's almost 13 minutes gone before United offer their first test of Pepe Reina, and it's a pedestrian shot from Berbatov that is comfortably saved by the Liverpool 'keeper. Two minutes later and the Bulgarian creates more from the half a chance he's offered, bouncing the ball of the outside of Reina's post. After a nervy start, United have begun to fight their way back into the contest. The game is fully on when Raul Meireles is picked out by Suarez, the Portuguese heading across the box but unable to pick out Dirk Kuyt who streams in from the outside. The match parameters have been set, as well, with United's controlled passing game contrasting sharply against the home side's frenetic run-about, channeling the sort of chicken-with-its-head-cut-off football that Carlos Tevez made famous. Sotirios Kygriakos replaces Fabio Aurelio only 23 minutes into the action, as King Kenny is forced to go to the bench early. Wes Brown heads onto goal off a free kick shortly afterward, but the ball is partially blocked and easily cleared off the line by Meireles. Glen Johnson shuttles over to left fullback, which may provide Nani with opportunities as the game progresses. Luis Suarez opens the scoring as he slaloms through the United defense like Lidsay Vonn, easily picking out an open Dirk Kuyt who has little to do but tap the ball into an empty net. In truth it's a brilliant assist by the Uruguayan, beating three men and making the United defense dive at shadows. Five minutes later and Nani gets the opportunity we've been expecting, offering a fine assist -- the only problem is that he's headed the ball the wrong way, toward his own goal. It's the Dutchman Kuyt again who knocks the ball home, this time from two feet out instead of one, and Nani may have to be questioned at halftime as to where his true loyaltie lie. Tempers boil over as the game nears the interval. First, Carragher offers a shocking tackle on Nani, which could easily have been a red card. Although Nani immediately rises to protest, he's shortly back on the ground rolling around in obvious pain, and you have to fear the worst as a United fan. In truth, it's a horrific tackle from Carragher, and he's damned lucky to stay on the pitch. When Rafael is cleated a minute later by Maxi Rodriguez in another tackle that should've been shown a red card, the young Brazilian retaliates by offering a high boot on his next tackle, and both teams congergate in middle of the pitch to push and pull at each other as Phil Dowd stands back and watches. Of note, Luis Suarez, of handball and biting fame, now adds hair pulling to his repertoire, as he grabs Rafael's curly locks and pulls hard. Chicharito has come on to replace Nani just before halftime, and the move shunts Rooney over to the right for the second half. There are early chances at both ends to begin the second half, with Suarez almost picking out Gerrard on a short dink in front of Van der Sar, and Berbatov nearly finding Chicharito on the end of a cross from the right hand side of the pitch. Rooney picks out Giggs at 55 minute mark, and it's better from United. More control, more hustle, and slightly more desire from the visitors, with Liverpool on the back foot early. Berbatov is blocked off the line by Meireles who does well not to use his arm. At the other end, Mr Tatoo forces Van der Sar into a fine save, but when the Dutchman clears it he's lucky that Evra is nearby to clear away the potential danger. Kuyt completes his ha trick after a free kick wand Sir Alex may have to send out a search party to find his missing defense. Kuyt may or may not be offside, but it doesn't really matter, as it's all piling on at this point. Van der Dar has spilled a ball that's fired through the wall, and no one other than the United 'keeper is within five feet of the ball when Kuyt taps it in. He's kicked the ball a collective five feet this afternoon, and collected three goals for his effort. This is easily the worst United performance of the season, and the early season issues which were papered over are coming back to haunt Sir Alex and his boys at this point. I can hardly watch as Andy Carroll replaces the dirty Uruguayan Suarez. Nothing goes United's way today, even free kicks and corners which amount to a huge helping of nothing. United's defense continues it's shocking play, allowing Kuyt, Gerrard and Suarez to come close to adding to the lead.
The only consolation -- and it's minor, mind you -- is when Chicharito heads the ball past Reina to destroy his shutout. It's 3-1 to the home side, and Sir Alex and the boys will be licking their wounds and scratching their heads, wondering how they've made a mess of the title race in the past two weeks."