Liverpool's hopes of finishing in the top 4 suffered a near fatal blow yesterday as we fell to a disappointing 2-1 loss at Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United. The game changed when the Mancs were unfairly awarded a penalty on 12 minutes, after Mascherano had tugged Valencia's shirt outside of the penalty area. It was a game defining moment, that spun the momentum in favour of the home side.
Liverpool started in the best possible fashion, taking the lead after only 5 minutes. The first goal was well worked, with Gerrard and Kuyt combining to set up Torres, who headed home from 6 yards out.
The move started with Torres harrying Carrick on the halfway line, causing him to lose possession. The ball fell to the feet of Steven Gerrard, who released Kuyt down the right after easily beating Ferdinand. Kuyt, who was starting on the right wing, pulled in a wonderful cross that landed perfectly on the head of Fernando Torres. The Spaniard leapt high in the air to meet the ball, and power a terrific header past the diving Edwin Van der Sar.
It was a fantastic, well worked goal from the Reds, however, disappointingly it was one of few moments of attacking creativity.
United responded quickly as Rooney dragged a shot wide from 20 yards, before the home side regained parity on 12 minutes, thanks to a dubious refereeing decision. A long ball was hit forward from the United defence, which Insua, who had another bad game at left back, headed to the feet of Antonio Valencia.
The Ecuadorian raced towards the penalty area, and Mascherano tried to stop him by tugging on his shirt, before Valencia, realising that he had the opportunity to earn his side a spot kick, dived into the box.
The rules of the game state that if a foul starts outside the box and continutes into the box then it is a penalty. I don't understand that rule, but that's the way it is. This still shouldn't have been a penalty though, as the foul started and ended outside the penalty box, before Valencia dived into the box. No foul was committed inside the box, therefore it shouldn't have been a spot kick. Unfortunately, it seems like no decision will ever go in our favour this season.
In frustration Torres kicked at the penalty spot, taking a huge clump out of the ground, in an attempt to distract Rooney, who compained loudly to referee Howard Webb. The distraction worked, as Rooney's penalty was brilliantly saved by Pepe Reina, however Manchester United's scouse star striker converted the rebound to level the game up at 1-1.
The game had really caught fire now, as the controversial penalty decision raised emotions on both sides, as Fergie claimed that Mascherano should have been shown a red card for denying a goalscoring opportunity (remember the Carling Cup final Fergie) and Rafa argued quite rightly that it was never a spot kick in the first place. Eventually the managers had to be seperated by the 4th official, in an attempt to restore order.
A neat move soon after from Liverpool nearly gave us a second goal. The move was started by Lucas, who spread a pass out to Kuyt on the right. Kuyt played a quick pass back to Gerrard in the centre. Our skipper then played a wonderful defence spliting ball through to Torres, however Van der Sar was quick off his line to grab the ball at Torres' feet.
With 5 minutes of the first half remaining, poor defensive work from Emiliano Insua almost led to United taking the lead. The Argentine failed to close down Valencia quickly, allowing the winger plenty of time to race past him and place a good cross into the box, where it was met by the head of Ji-Sung Park, who was instrumental throughout. The South Korean stretched to meet the ball with his head, and could only manage to head the ball wide of the target, to the relief of Insua and the rest of the Reds backline.
The Mancs were the better side in the second half, and they had the first chance of the half as well, as Ji-Sung Park provided Reina with a routine save after Rooney had found him with a neat ball.
United scored what turned out to be the winner on the hour mark, as a brilliant move led to Park scoring with a diving header at the far post. Valencia ran with the ball into the middle of the pitch, before finding Rooney with a pass. The former Everton player created space for himself, then switched play out to the right wing. A decoy run from Liverpool hater Gary Neville distracted Insua, allowing Fletcher time and space to whip an inviting centre into the box. Ji-Sung Park dived in at the far post to head home, leaving Liverpool with a mountain to climb.
In the remaining 30 minutes Liverpool, more specifically Torres, had two glorious opportunites to equalise, which would have earned us a crucial point, however both chances were spurned. First, Kuyt passed to Gerrard in space on the right edge of the 18 yard box. Gerrard centred the ball to present Torres with a fantastic opportunity, however the Spaniard's touch let him down, as the ball ballooned into the air, before being cleared by the United defence.
Sandwiched in between the two magnificent chances for Liverpool, Rooney had a chance of his own. Park's beautiful reverse pass set up Rooney, who ran at the Reds backline, terrifying Johnson and Agger. Thankfully, Rooney shot just wide of the post, however it was another demonstartion of the home side's danager on the counter attack.
In the dying moments Liverpool really should have grabbed a late equaliser. Gerrard recieved the ball from Mascherano, in a similar position to when he had set up Torres earlier on. He passed across the box, past Aquilani to the feet of Torres.
If you wanted the ball to land to any Reds player it would have been Fernando Torres, as he is normally such a deadly striker, however he scuffed his shot horribly. The ball went in the air, fortunately arriving at the head of Yossi Benayoun, who should have powered home a header from yards out, however his weak header was comfortably gathered by the keeper, to the relief of the majority packed into Old Trafford.
Rooney has defined the Mancs season. If he had been as injury prone as Torres has been this season then Manchester United would probably be in a simialr situation to Liverpool's as without their talisman they look incredibly ordinary. Also, if Torres had been fit and firing all season, like Rooney, then Liverpool would almost certainly still be in the title race. Hopefully next season Rooney will be out for half a season and Torres will be leading us to the title however, with Torres' injury record, I can't see that happening.
Liverpool are now rank outsiders in the race for the Champions League. All we can do now is win every single game for the remainder of our run in, and hope Spurs, City and Villa all slip up. It's not an impossiblity as Spurs still have to play Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City, while City face United, Arsenal, Tottenham and Villa, however the chances of Liverpool finishing 4th are becoming slimmer and slimmer with every match.