Liverpool and Manchester United were enemies as they went head-to-head for the 183rd time on Saturday, but allies against the Sky Sports juggernaut.
High on adrenaline yet low on skill, England’s biggest clubs fought out their annual scrappy encounter within Anfield’s claustrophobic and atmospheric confines in a match hampered by trans-Atlantic skulduggery. Manchester United stopped their rot on the red side of Stanley Park in what was nevertheless another unconvincing display as the Kop’s inhabitants trudged away disappointed at not making it four in a row against their Mancunian adversaries.
The fixture for those watching on Sky was diluted by what was a loathsome piece of commercial PR, starting with the corporation beaming the views of Liverpool and ‘Man U’ fans from New York pre-match before ahead of seeking the articulate thoughts of Graeme Souness and Gary Neville (fuggedabout Jamie Redknapp). ‘Look at Man U’s roster top to bottom,’ urged Bret, who was filling in for Jamie Redknapp commendably, yet the coverage’s Americanisation (already buoyed by presenter Dave Jones exhibiting all the traits of Fox News) was an insult to English football and specifically, the clubs’ British fan-base. Conveniently, both teams are owned by Americans.
Jones even signed off by dubbing the clash ‘the biggest game in the world’, when that honour indisputably goes to Spain’s El Clásico, in what was a desperate bid to sell the product to the vacuous at home and abroad. In the week when Ian Ayre betrayed the socialist values of Bill Shankly and his Liverpudlian disciples, it was grotesque that TVs tyrannical power was thrust in the face of viewers when there is a wealth of history and experience to call upon to intensify the anticipation instead.
Once the game started, the level of coverage was so inept and tailored for those across the pond that a star spangled banner may as well have flashed on the screen every quarter to promote patriotism. Ray Wilkins, initially tolerable in Sky’s post-Andy Gray era, dangerously veered into Alan Smith territory with his chumminess and staggering decision to award Steven Gerrard man of the match when he wasn’t even Liverpool’s bronze winner in the ratings. The post-match highlights package of his display was akin to Sky Sports News when they don’t have exciting footage at their disposal of a prospective signing, so show them entering a taxi at Gatwick.
Wilkins and the anodyne Rob Hawthorne were stumped when prompted to put a positive spin on a clash of positive and negative as Sir Alex Ferguson exiled Danny Welbeck despite correctly selecting a three-man midfield. The caveat was that none of the three supported their striker while Ji-Sung Park’s selection was in a bid to nullify the marauding Jose Enrique, rather than add attacking weight. By tailoring his XI to repel their hosts, in the red corner, Kenny Dalglish would have been buoyed and smelt the fear in what was a cowardly selection by his counterpart.
Over-compensating for past gormless displays in L4 left United imbalanced and their attack was as toothless as Bruce Forsythe. Liverpool fared better by dictating the tempo, yet when Luis Suárez left Jonny Evans tied up in knots he fired straight at David de Gea whereas aside from a couple of pot-shots, Phil Jones’ inadequate header was the closest United got in a lacklustre first-half.
English football’s advertisement was however boosted by Gerrard opening the scoring in the 68th minute. Ryan Giggs, possibly distracted by Imogen Thomas arriving in the director’s box, unforgivably edged out of the wall to allow a flat free-kick to find the gap and fly in past De Gea’s left-hand post. It was eerily similar to Gerrard’s equaliser at Old Trafford last season, when Darren Fletcher broke from protocol and didn’t mind the gap, up to the celebration when he brandished five fingers to signal the five European Cups Liverpool have won.
Alas for Javier Hernández, humans don’t possess 19 digits. So when the latest Scousebusting member pounced on Martin Skrtel’s slip to equalise 13 minutes later, he had to be content with unsettling the sensitive Anfield stewards and kissing the United badge. Maybe the 11 on the pitch for United could have been joined by the substitutes to make a line of 18 before Ferguson slid in at the end, ripping his shirt open to reveal a shirt bearing ‘19’ like a rock star. Choreography came secondary to winning though.
But Liverpool were the only team who went for the win thereafter. Ferguson had brought on Wayne Rooney, Nani and Hernández to inject some zip into United’s play, but they retreated back into their shell at 1-1 and were dependent on De Gea’s brilliance to deny Dirk Kuyt and substitute Jordan Henderson, although the latter missed spurned a gilt-edged chance with a free header in stoppage time.
Sky’s exercise was passionless and strictly sanitised as they overlooked the witty repertoire on the terraces (Scousers welcomed Rooney with ‘Who’s the Scouser in the wig?’) and opted not to show an airplane draping a banner overhead bearing the slogan ‘Bonjour 19x’, in response to this banner shown at Anfield in 1993. To quote Enrico Fermi, ‘Ignorance is never better than knowledge.’
Heartening for Dalglish is that Liverpool, who have often outfought their inter-city neighbours in recent victories, displayed genuine attacking verve chiefly thanks to the elusive Suárez and their combination on the left-wing. Ironic then that they didn’t prevail, for United’s defence, alarmingly loose this season, was in fine form in what was a gutsy performance despite a gutless line-up. The black and blues didn’t end up blackened blue.
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