A quick-fire second-half Wayne Rooney brace stunned Liverpool as the Carling Cup finalists were beaten 2-1 at Old Trafford on Saturday afternoon. While many observers are likely to still be talking about Luis Suarez’s refusal to shake the hand of Manchester United captain Patrice Evra before kick-off, in reality the most important thing about the fixture was the hosts’ ability to grind out a win which briefly saw them climb to the top of the Premier League table.
Having dumped their arch-rivals out of the FA Cup just a couple of weeks ago, Kenny Dalglish’s men should have approached this game with great confidence. But apart from a couple of occasions where Glen Johnson burst into the opposition half and tried to cause havoc in United’s final third, the Reds failed to really threaten their title-chasing opponents in the opening period.
Dalglish’s decision to demote Craig Bellamy, Charlie Adam and Andy Carroll to the bench may have come as a surprise to the visiting fans, as despite drawing blanks in their previous game against Tottenham, Bellamy and Carroll in particular had been in reasonably good form for the Reds. Fiery Welshman Bellamy, who was recently crowned Standard Chartered’s Player of the Month for the second consecutive month, is Liverpool’s joint top-scorer in the top-flight.
The man who stole Bellamy’s place in the starting line-up, Stewart Downing, was anonymous throughout. The £20m summer signing has failed to claim a single assist or even a goal in 24 Premier League appearances so far this term, and it was obvious to see why during his poor performance at Old Trafford. On the whole, Dalglish appears to have kept faith in the former Aston Villa man, but should Downing fail to produce the goods in the upcoming FA Cup fixture against Brighton, then the 27-year-old winger may just lose his place in the team when Liverpool visit Wembley later this month.
Given the controversy surrounding Suarez and his pre-match antics, it may be difficult for some to remember that it was the Reds’ Uruguayan star who actually offered Dalglish a glimmer of hope when he found the net in the 80th minute. After winning a free-kick in a dangerous position, the striker made his way into the box and coolly converted Adam’s cross from close-range following some poor United defending. That goal seemed to spark Liverpool into life and the Merseysiders had good chances to clinch an undeserved equaliser, but it was a case of too little, too late.
There is no shame in losing by such a narrow margin at Old Trafford, but Reds’ fans may feel that the outcome could have been different had Bellamy started the game. The result means that Liverpool are still on 39 points, though fortunately for Dalglish, both Chelsea and Newcastle also lost meaning that the Reds are still just four points away from fourth-spot. But for now, all focus will be on the cup competitions. Liverpool’s next game is an FA Cup tie against Championship outfit Brighton, with the Carling Cup final against Cardiff taking place just a week later. A win at Wembley could give the Anfield outfit enough of a boost to end their league season on a high and seal a top-four finish.
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