Few people, including myself, were expecting anything other than a Man Utd backlash on Saturday in response to their heavy 4 – 1 defeat to Liverpool at Old Trafford. Utd were surely out to prove that they simply had a “bad day at the office” and that normal service was to be quickly and most definitely resumed. However, even fewer would have predicted what actually transpired at Craven Cottage, West London on Saturday afternoon.
Not only did Utd get beaten again, (the first time since 2005 that they have lost consecutive games) but they are clearly starting to feel the pressure.
Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney were sent off and Ronaldo was maybe lucky not to have joined them, on a day where he showed the most petulant side of his nature. It was another another blow to Manchester United’s title hopes, yet even despite these recent blips, the Title is still theirs to throw away. I just didn’t expect them to be doing such a good job of it! The last week has been very un-United.
Anyway, it only took 18 minutes for the Man Utd juggernaut to come off the rails on Saturday. Paul Scholes seeing red after pulling off an excellent two handed save from a close range header from Bobby Zamora that was destined for the back of the net after an initial good save from van der Sar. With pure irony it was ex Liverpool player Danny Murphy, who was so often a thorn in Utd’s side during his time at Anfield, who stepped up and dispatched a clinical penalty.
Van der Sar kept Utd in the game during the first half, it could have been worse, as Fulham seemed to have adopted a “shoot on site” policy. However, even down to 10 men, United pressed hard in the second-half for an equaliser, but it was Fulham’s Zoltan Gera who struck on the break with a superb control and bicycle kick finish to put the game beyond Utd.
Seconds later it got even worse for Man Utd as Rooney threw the ball away in frustration to earn a second booking. Showing the frustration and the pressure even more, he then proceeded to punch the corner flag as he made his way down the tunnel. It rounded off what was another miserable day for United, whose lead has now been cut to one point (albeit with what could still prove to be a game in hand).
Before kick-off last week at Old Trafford, Utd were 7 points clear. If they had won, which looked likely after the Ronaldo penalty, the lead would have been 10 points with a game in hand. Not only that, but Utd also had a far superior goal difference, in effect worth another point.
But a week can be a long time in football. That potential 10 point lead is now only one. Not only that, the goal difference advantage Utd also enjoyed has been totally reversed. There has been an 11 goal swing, in one week! It only goes to prove nothing is a certainty in this game, anything can happen and there are going to be a few more twists and turns in this title race, whereas just over a week ago, it looked like nothing more than a procession.
Of course, what makes it worse for Utd is that it is Liverpool who are turning up the pressure. They did so on Sunday by demolishing Aston Villa with another goal spree, this time at Anfield. Villa looked quite dangerous earlier on but ended the day deflated on the back of the comprehensive 5 – 0 defeat.
Steven Gerrard inevitably provided the inspiration with his first Premier League hat-trick (including two penalties) as Liverpool sent out another emphatic statement of intent about their renewed title ambitions.
Rafael Benitez celebrated signing a new five-year contract by watching his side seal victory by half-time as they established a three-goal lead, building the platform for a win that leaves Liverpool in second place and just a point behind United after their shock defeat at Fulham, mentioned above.
Liverpool then racked up two more crucial strikes after the interval which completed the 11 goal swing and extended their own goal difference beyond United’s by two. In what could become a nailing biting finale, no one is doubting the importance the role goal difference could yet still play in this title race.
United still have that crucial game in hand, and only time will prove how vital that could still prove to be, but the huge shift in momentum since Liverpool’s crushing victory at Old Trafford has all at Anfield seriously believing they can overhaul their fierce rivals in the run-in. It is such a shame for all neutral fans out there that there is now an international break to endure for two weeks until the title race resumes. What could also be another crucial factor is that Liverpool have the opportunity to apply yet more pressure as they play their next game before Utd. Liverpool could leap frog Utd if they win their next game. It will be a balancing act between points on the board and games in hand. The crucial aspect will be, what psychological effect will Liverpool winning that game and moving into first place have on Man Utd following two such bad defeats?
Well, I don’t know, but it’s certainly going to be worth tuning in to find out!