Following the win against Liverpool – and Chelsea’s Lancastrian slip-up – United now look odds-on to cling on to that top spot. This is in stark contrast to the fixture last season – also coming at this stage – threw United’s title ambitions into turmoil, pushing Liverpool onto their greatest Premier League challenge. However, this Liverpool side looked a shadow of last season’s and in truth rarely tested a United defence looking to be back to full strength.
There were some strong performances all over the pitch for United with Ji-Sung Park rightly taking the plaudits for his winning goal. Heading is not something that the Korean is famed for – having only scored a handful of headers throughout his career – but it was a tactic for United which was to prove fruitful all afternoon. Credit must be given to Park for throwing himself among the boots to claim a header any centre-forward would have been proud of. Treatment was required for a head injury which showed Park’s blood flows as red as his shirt, as of course his personal health was a secondary concern after celebrating the goal and banging the badge on his chest – this is something that will have pleased his captain no end.
It was not Park’s best game of late in what has been a purple patch for the Korean but his performance showed much about his game and the problems he poses to other sides. The threat provided by Park in recent encounters has been when linking up with Wayne Rooney, exploiting the movement in both their games but at times the No. 13 struggled to get into the game and link up with Rooney in this encounter. What the former PSV man was able to do, however, was utilise his movement with late runs into the box connecting with crosses from either side. Twice in the first half Park was unlucky to head wide, but these misses did not deter him – the willingness to keep plugging away is a great attribute to his game – and he was able to get his head onto Darren Fletcher’s superb cross for a winning goal that was thoroughly deserved. The Korean’s growing importance to Sir Alex Ferguson’s side currently cannot be stressed enough.
For what was a strong performance throughout for United, there were two others who – in the opinion of this writer – deserve a mention for their contributions – Fletcher and Gary Neville. Neville put in another age-defying performance which many feel will earn him that new contract that he so desperately craves. Maxi Rodriguez was kept anonymous in an attacking capacity by Neville and the United skipper was also able to link up in a continually improving partnership with Antonio Valencia. It is often the attacking prowess of Neville’s opposing number – Glen Johnson – which is cited as the reason for the Liverpool man’s inclusion in the national team, but with Neville consistently showing his attacking attributes – including a cross honed through many training sessions with David Beckham – on current form there is little to prove Johnson’s case over the United captain’s.
Fletcher put in the kind of performance that is come to be expected of the Scot with constant harrying of the Liverpool midfield but also the ability to affect the play higher up the pitch. Fletcher was in constant contact with Javier Mascherano – a player widely felt to be amongst the top players in the world – and was able to gain the upper hand throughout the encounter. Scotland’s No. 7 is seen by many simply as someone who breaks up the play and to use rather derogatory comments, one who is only involved in anti-football. This is somewhat harsh on a player who has improved his game going forward this season, thrusting him into the mould of United legends Bryan Robson and Roy Keane. Fletcher’s afternoon culminated in the cross for Park’s goal – the ball of the afternoon – but much of this was down to the tireless efforts of Neville. The full-back’s gut busting run provided Fletcher with the requisite room to deliver a pin-point ball into the box. For a veteran of the game this was a fantastic piece of selfless play by Neville.
United may be in pole position but the title is certainly theirs to lose with a tough run-in = pitting the Red Devils against Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City, Chelsea and Blackburn Rovers. The Chelsea game falls in between the Champions League encounters with Bayern Munich, four days after the tough first leg away trip. But these are the games where top players thrive and as United currently seem to have an ideal balance between experience and exuberance in what is fast becoming a settled side, it may be very difficult to bet against them on current evidence.