United win can’t hide flaws

Lesotho Times - - Sport -

LIVERPOOL — A Dog & Duck v Red Lion oc­ca­sion, if ever there was one. It’s a year or so since Gary Neville told us that is what the fix­ture which once fired the soul had been re­duced to, but here was the ev­i­dence in plain view on Sun­day at An­field.

It was a school-field kind of spec­ta­cle at times — scruffy, naive, and mind­less; two groups of play­ers con­ced­ing pos­ses­sion time and time again and one of them scram­bling home with the af­ter­noon’s sin­gu­lar mo­ment of class. Manch­ester United knew this.

There was none of the char­ac­ter­is­tic joy in Sir Alex Fer­gu­son’s face as he left the di­rec­tors’ box af­ter a last 10 min­utes which had seemed, from the ges­tures ac­com­pa­ny­ing his an­i­mated con­ver­sa­tion with chief ex­ec­u­tive Ed Wood­ward in the next seat, to be con­sumed with the team’s fail­ure to play with com­mon sense, once their goal had come.

Wayne Rooney was not punch­ing the bit­terly cold af­ter­noon air when the whis­tle sounded.

The agony for Liverpool was ren­dered all the greater by both the ease and pre­dictabil­ity of Rooney’s win­ner, from an­other of the cor­ners to which they are now so painfully sus­cep­ti­ble.

The four de­fend­ers clus­ter­ing around Marouane Fel­laini in that mo­ment were mes­merised; obliv­i­ous to the goalscorer who lurked be­hind them in wait. But the sense of an op­por­tu­nity spurned com­pounds the grief which was tan­gi­ble when the Liverpool man­ager, Jürgen Klopp, ar­rived, shell-shocked, to dis­cuss it all.

Rooney’s goal, dis­patched im­pe­ri­ously into the roof of the net, was the first United strike on tar­get in a game which seemed to be there for the tak­ing.

Even his man­ager, Louis van Gaal, con­fessed at the end of it all that “I have to ad­mit we sur­vived the first half” and there were a few mo­ments in that pe­riod when the most el­e­men­tary plan looked enough to un­pick a de­fence in which he ac­tu­ally claims some pride.

A lol­lipop lob over the top from Lu­cas Leiva, be­yond the wit of United’s cen­tre­halves, re­quired a sharp David De Gea re­ac­tion stop to re­pel the ball the chas­ing Adam Lal­lana tried to lift past him.

An­other lofted pass, left flank to right side of the area, sent United’s de­fence chas­ing be­hind them again, nowhere re­motely near James Mil­ner, who took on Roberto Firmino’s pass. It was a hardly a lock-pick­ing ex­er­cise, though Mil­ner’s free strike on goal did not re­motely threaten the tar­get.

It was not the last time that De Gea — Van Gaal’s man of the match once again, in this sea­son of rear­guard ac­tions — would be called upon.

A strong right hand was re­quired to re­pel Emre Can’s shot af­ter he had burst through the area af­ter the break, with more in­stinc­tive goal­keep­ing when Firmino fol­lowed up.

The un­fath­omable as­pect of Van Gaal’s post-match as­sess­ment was his ret­i­cence, bor­der­ing on rude­ness, to praise the Spa­niard: “I can­not say that to­day he has done a lot. He has stopped the balls that he had to stop. Maybe the one with one hand? Maybe. But I think he has to save it.”

The man­ager would have been wise to fo­cus on those, like De Gea, who had de­liv­ered for him in this match be­cause they were few and far be­tween. The cen­tral mid­field was loose and un­tidy, with lit­tle to choose be­tween An­der Her­rera and Mor­gan Sch­nei­der­lin.

Fel­laini was marginally the more sig­nif­i­cant by virtue of his phys­i­cal pres­ence and a tem­per­a­ment to re­sist what ap­peared to be Leiva’s at­tempts to pro­voke a red card re­ac­tion from him.

The Brazil­ian thumped into the Bel­gian’s head with his shoul­der a few min­utes in and promptly laid hands on him — twice. It was the kind of strat­egy which can yield re­sults where Fel­laini is con­cerned. Lu­cas was lucky not to be booked.

With Liverpool’s de­fence an­chored by Kolo Touré — whom Klopp does not pre­tend is any­thing other than in the twi­light of his ca­reer — and more prone to con­ced­ing cor­ners than any other Premier League team, find­ing the way to score did not seem like a feat of sci­ence.

Yet it was not un­til the game’s 78th minute that Fel­laini threat­ened from the sig­nif­i­cant set piece. Rarely could An­thony Mar­tial be set free to test the full-backs Nathaniel Clyne, for whom this was a pro­fes­sional ap­point­ment best for­got­ten, or Al­berto Moreno.

The game in­tel­li­gence of United’s first half was en­cap­su­lated by the piece of de­ci­sion-mak­ing sec­onds af­ter Ash­ley Young had been struck down with the mus­cu­lar in­jury which Van Gaal ad­mit­ted had meant he ought to have missed this match. He re­ceived treat­ment, dragged him­self to his feet — and was promptly treated to a hos­pi­tal pass by Chris Smalling, the rigours of which he did not re­cover from.

For­tu­nately for United, Liverpool’s own in­tel­li­gence was barely any bet­ter. Firmino screamed at Si­mon Mig­no­let not to clear the ball to him in the se­cond-half wind, but he did so any­way, set­ting off the train of events by which pos­ses­sion was turned over and a cor­ner won which — taken short to sub­sti­tute Juan Mata — de­liv­ered the ac­cu­rate, match-win­ning cross.

United made the op­por­tu­nity pay be­cause they pos­sessed Rooney, the game-changer. Since he was dropped to make way for Her­rera at Stoke at Box­ing Day, it has been hard to find fault with him. “A striker who scores is al­ways very im­por­tant and now he is scor­ing in a row and we are win­ning in a row,” Van Gaal said last night.

This was pre­cisely what Klopp lacked. There was more than one oc­ca­sion when Jor­dan Hen­der­son, driv­ing for­ward, had no man in red in front of him. The cap­tain’s own fin­ish­ing — fir­ing wide af­ter Lu­cas had sent him through, then blast­ing over with Firmino ly­ing in wait to re­ceive — was des­per­ate.

Klopp was be­ing gen­er­ous when he said that Firmino fit­ted the bill and no new cen­tre-for­ward was re­quired.

“This game will give a big boost to the en­vi­ron­ment of Manch­ester United,” re­flected Van Gaal, who has beaten Liverpool four times con­sec­u­tively and has firmly re­in­forced his job se­cu­rity.

But no one is fooled. There is a long road ahead for both sides. — The In­de­pen­dent

Wayne Rooney scored the only goal in Sun­day’s match.

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