Another Jekyll and Hyde performance from Manchester United secured a vital 3 points at Old Trafford in the first half of ‘Super Sunday’. Sir Alex Ferguson selected a few surprise inclusions; Danny Welbeck was selected up front while Ashley Young and Shinji Kagawa were preferred on the wings, leaving Javier Hernandez and Antonio Valencia on the bench. The experienced duo of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic started their first game together in recent memory to give United solidity at the back. Brendan Rogers left out Jose Enrique and installed young Andre Wisdom at full back with Glen Johnson moving left back in an otherwise unchanged Liverpool side from their last few matches. New signing Daniel Sturridge could only make the bench despite scoring on his debut in the F.A. cup.
United initially tore out of the traps and pressed Liverpool high up the pitch in order to prevent their usual metronomic passing from the back – Welbeck in particular justified his selection with an energetic display. The inclusion of Young and Kagawa on the wings gave United a chance to move both inside when they didn’t have the ball to help Tom Cleverley press the central midfield areas. Liverpool’s wide men also tucked inside, therefore isolating Luis Suarez, resulting in a narrow game which appeared to suit United. Michael Carrick was given ample time and space to sit deep and dictate the game for United as Liverpool backed off (probably not a deliberate tactic from Brendan Rogers) all over the pitch and let the home side have possession. Liverpool appeared unsettled, unable to string passes together, and United took the lead their dominance in possession deserved. Patrice Evra drove in a low cross with which the man of the moment, Robin van Persie, expertly diverted the ball past Pepe Reina and into the net. United continued their hassling of Liverpool and Joe Allen in particular failed to make an impact on the game. Welbeck had a half-chance before the interval which was blocked by Martin Skrtel, and Tom Cleverley volleyed inches wide after a poor headed clearance from Allen. Skrtel cleared off the line after good work from Rafael inside the Liverpool penalty area set up van Persie, whose audacious back heel was smothered away by the defender.
Liverpool were grateful to get in at half time only a goal down, but continued the start in the same vein in which they had finished the first. When Skrtel hauled down Welbeck inside his own half, van Persie delivered a sumptuous delivery towards the back post where Evra nodded the ball past Reina, via the smallest of deflections from Vidic. Evra’s goal-scoring form this season is to be admired; however the goal will go down as the Serbian’s as it was diverted past Reina. The deflection was so slight that even the visitors didn’t notice; had they have done, they may have felt aggrieved that Vidic was marginally offside when the ball flicked off him.
The second goal finally galvanised Liverpool out of their slumber, and they dragged themselves back in the game when Gerrard’s low shot was well saved by David De Gea, but substitute Daniel Sturridge was the only player from each side following the shot up and got his reward by slotting past the unfortunate keeper. Suddenly United had a game on their hands; Liverpool were now the team pressing all over the park and Carrick in particular was poor for the last half-hour, his radar misfiring as he was given no time on the ball. The introduction of Sturridge had changed the game; he was pressing both United centre backs and looking for balls over the top, while Suarez roamed in behind Michael Carrick to good effect, potentially displaying how Rogers may use both Sturridge and Suarez together this season. Liverpool’s wingers also stayed nearer the touchlines in the second half, leading to a more open game which now suited the visitors (the complete opposite of the first half). Another substitute Fabio Borini, volleyed narrowly wide after good work from Sturridge, and Sturridge himself shot wide after a raking pass from deep by Suarez. Liverpool’s best chance to level the game up came after great work by Suarez, wriggling past hoards of defenders in the area until the ball popped out of the melee to Sturridge, who side footed over when he really should have scored. Van Persie had the last word with another spectacular back heeled effort which was saved by Reina, and United clung on to the victory. Sir Alex Ferguson was relieved at the final whistle: "Some of our defending after [our lead was halved] was a bit erratic and even desperate at times.”
The hooded Jose Mourinho was an interested onlooker inside Old Trafford and may take great heart with United being so easily flustered when pressed in the second half, with memories of how his Real Madrid side pressed Barcelona to great effect last season ahead of the glamorous Champions League tie next month against United. For the hosts though, a much needed win keeping their advantage at the top to 7 points, slightly tempered by Vidic and Young going off with injuries. A mouth-watering month is ahead for last season’s runners-up.