MANCHESTER: The most important week of Manchester United’s season started disastrously when they crashed 3-0 at home to Liverpool at Old Trafford.
It could have been worse. Liverpool, second in the table, scored through two Steven Gerrard penalties and a further strike from Luis Suarez but Gerrard missed another spot-kick and Suarez was once denied remarkably by keeper David De Gea.
Even worse for United, skipper Nemanja Vidic was sent for tripping Daniel Sturridge to give away the third penalty. They have no option now but to win the Champions League if they want to back among Europe’s club elite next season.
Gerrard said: “I’ve come here so many times and been played off the park by a fantastic team so to come here and dominate from start to finish we’re even a bit disappointed not to have scored more goals.
“It’s been a fantastic day. We’ll enjoy tonight and then move on very quickly. We’re genuine title contenders and we’ll go right to the end for it.”
In the modern Premier League era the north-west rivalry between the two red-shirted giants from the north-west of England had been far more significant to either club than their ‘domestic’ meetings with Manchester City and Everton respectively.
When Sir Alex Ferguson took over United he set matching Liverpool as his ambition and, on his retirement last year, he could glory in United having overtaken Liverpool’s old record of 19 league championship titles
The decisive contribution was Ferguson’s signing of Robin Van Persie in the summer of 2012. Van Persie ended up as last season’s league top scorer with the goals which made all the difference. This season, however, Van Persie has suffered an injury-punctuated time of it, hence new manager David Moyes’s team have fallen badly off the Euro-qualifying places.
The nadir was perhaps the first leg of the Champions League second round tie. United were fortunate to lose only 2-0 to Olympiacos in Greece after their poorest performance of the season. Van Persie sparked speculation about a summer exit when he complained after the game about his team-mates ‘taking my space’ in the penalty box.
Subsequently Van Persie was rushed in front of the United TV channel cameras to deny any suggestion of a rift and insist that he wanted to stay at Old Trafford. But it is an undeniable fact that his role has been disturbed by Moyes’s determination to hand Wayne Rooney a more significant role.
Under Ferguson Rooney had spent much of his time on the left wing, well out of Van Persie’s way. Moyes, however, prefers to use Rooney’s explosive talents ‘in the hole’ between midfield and central striker. Rooney likes that – as his contract extension demonstrates – but for Van Persie it’s a new world.
On Wednesday – injuries permitting – they will start together in the Champions League for only the third time this season. The first was United’s group-opening 4-2 win over Bayer Leverkusen last September and the second the defeat in Greece.
The size of the task against Olympiacos is challenging but certainly not impossible even though United have not overhauled a two-goal first-leg deficit in European competition the mid-1980s.
Not that thoughts of that match impinged on their thoughts yesterday: matches against Liverpool are too important and, in any case, United were under desperate pressure to re-assert themselves in the Premier League against Brendan Rodgers’s revilatised outfit.
United duly attacked from the outset, while Liverpool relied on the breaks of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. One such break by Suarez was halted only by a handball from Rafael and Steven Gerrard clipped home the penalty off David De Gea’s left-hand post.
Rafael was fortunate not to have been sent off. Minutes earlier he had been yellow-carded for a bad foul on Gerrard and could easily have been booked a second time for the handling offence. Remarkably it was the first penalty United had conceded in 85 league games.
The second followed two minutes into the second half, this time after Phil Jones tripped Joe Allen.
A third penalty followed in the 78th minute when skipper Nemanja Vidic was sent off – for the fourth time in his United career – for tripping Sturridge. This time, however, Gerrard wrapped his spot-kick against De Gea’s right-hand post.
Minutes later Suarez had an open goal chance. His thunderous drive was deflected for a corner by De Gea’s right hand but, when United failed to take possession from the corner, Suarez made no mistake for goal No3.
Moyes and United left the pitch to jeers from their own fans. Moyes’s job is not under threat. United will keep the faith and he will have the opportunity to rebuild the squad this summer after his own transfer market preference.
First, however, he must pick up his team psychologically for the challenge of an Olympiacos side who will have been massively encouraged by what they saw at Old Trafford. That will not be easy.
Arsenal derby win
Arsene Wenger marked his 999th match in charge of Arsenal with the satisfaction of 1-0 north London derby victory at Tottenham. Spurs have failed to score against Per Mertesacker in all three meetings this season in the Premier League (twice) and FA Cup.
Victory came at a crucial time for Arsenal. Spring had seen them toppled from leadership of the Premier League, knocked out of the Champions League and with questions being raised inevitably once more about the strength and depth of the squad.
Hard-working midfielders Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere both missed the Tottenham game along with long-term casualty Theo Walcott as well as Mesut Ozil. The German playmaker is expected to be sidelined for around a month, possibly even six weeks, with a hamstring tear.
In the event he was not missed.
Tomas Rosicky thundered another of his spectacular goals in only the third minute and after that, though Spurs fought hard, Arsenal resisted impressively. Wenger would have been satisfied not only with the result with one of his team’s most impressive defensive displays for a long time.
Lukas Podolski always looked eager on the break. He might have scored shortly before his usual late substitution but smacked an angled shot into the side net just behind Hugo Lloris’s right-hand post.
Victory kept Arsenal third, trailing Liverpool only on goal difference.
Now for Wenger’s 1,000th match . . . at Chelsea on Saturday.