Monday, January 14, 2013

Fergie gets big calls right as Rodgers and Howard Webb get it horribly wrong..

The story of United's 2-1 win over Liverpool at Old Trafford on Sunday can be summarised as follows: Van Persie, Vidic and Sturridge grab goal headlines, while Ferguson's big calls pay dividends as Howard Webb and Brendan Rodgers get it horribly wrong.

The game passed without too much controversy, that is it did, apart from the part played by Howard Webb and Liverpool's Glen Johnson, more on those two later.

The win over Liverpool ensured Manchester United maintained their seven lead over neighbours Manchester City in the Barclays Premier League. With justification, this fixture has been described as the most fierce in English football - to state there is no love between the two clubs and their respective supporters would be an understatement. Ahead of Sunday's clash, the media's attention rightly focused on Robin Van Persie and Luis Suárez, both have lit up the Premier League with spectacular goals aplenty and in the case of Liverpool's Uruguayan striker, controversy by the bucket load. As things turned out, the leading players didn't exactly follow the script. Suárez was kept in check by a well organised United defence, one that had Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic at the heart of it.

While Suárez was largely anonymous, at the other end, Van Persie scored his 17th league goal of the season with another exquisite finish, one that gave Pepe Reina no chance on 19 minutes. A succession of neat passes on the left led to United opening up what had hitherto been a well drilled Liverpool defence for the brilliant Dutch master to apply another trademark finish.

United's goal-mouth pressure eventually paid off on 54 minutes when unmarked Patrice Evra got on the end of a curling Van Persie free-kick, his header was glanced on by Vidic who nodded home from close range.

Sturridge brought Liverpool back into the game with a goal on 57 minutes following a Steven Gerrard interception, to make it a much more even contest. But United had completely dominated the goal mouth action for the first hour and could easily have scored four or five.


Wary of Liverpool flooding midfield, Ferguson elected to start with Danny Welbeck instead of Hernandez. It was a wise decision, as Welbeck's mobility gave United's attacking play another dimension - one that included dropping back into midfield when required.

To the surprise of many, Shinji Kagawa started on the left, while Ashley Young was selected on the right at the expense of AtonioValencia whose form has been indifferent, to the puzzlement of many. While Kagawa and Young were out of their respective comfort zones - their presence gave United balance, both went on to make reasonably satisfactory contributions. Ashley Young was replaced at half-time due to injury with Valencia coming on as a more than adequate replacement.

In terms of goal-mouth incidents, it was a case of one way traffic with Liverpool riding their luck in a first-half that saw Tom Cleverley go close with a left-footed half volley. Van Persie and Welbeck failed to convert good goal scoring opportunities to extend United's lead. TV replays confirmed that United could and perhaps should have been awarded a penalty when Kagawa was brought down inside the Liverpool penalty area -  quite how the ball didn't end up in the back of the net during that passage of play beggared belief. Howard Webb and his officials clearly missed the foul on United's Japanese star - given the pace of the frenetic play it was a mistake that was more easily forgiven compared to other mistakes in this game.

For their part Liverpool while enjoying a fair amount of first-half possession, were toothless up front (no jokes about Suárez). Rodgers decision to play with just Suárez up front turned out to be a huge error of judgement. Sterling and Downing were equally as anonymous as Liverpool's lone striker. As a result it was far too easy for Vidic and & Co. to mop up the visitors unproductive attacks.

In truth, the game should have been all over as a serious contest at half time - the fact that it wasn't was down to a combination of poor finishing and Liverpool riding their luck. Rodgers made amends for his mistakes by sending on new signing Daniel Sturridge as a replacement for Lucas - who'd just been booked before the interval and on another day could quite easily have been sent off for a succession of professional fouls.

The additional striker gave United something to think about and as the second-half went on, the league leaders started to make silly mistakes with Carrick gifting the ball back to the visitors on several occasions.
Carrick and Cleverley were near faultless in the first-half, but for the last thirty minutes, they lost their grip on midfield as Liverpool fought back strongly.

Just three minutes after Vidic had doubled United's advantage, Liverpool hit back following a passage of sloppy passing when Steven Gerrard intercepted an attempted short pass between Cleverley and Carrick. It was classic Gerrard - the Liverpool skipper won the ball just outside the United box, he pressed forward and fired hard and low to De Gea's right, the Spaniard could only parry the ball into the path of Sturridge with Rafael left rooted on his heels, the former Chelsea striker made no mistake from close range and brought Liverpool right back into the game. From that point on, it was Liverpool who looked the more dangerous.

No doubt wary of what happened last season at home to Everton when United squandered a lead at Old Trafford, Ferguson attempted to combat Liverpool's midfield domination by sending on Phil Jones for Kagawa - a ploy that only worked partially.

Worryingly for United fans, Vidic was also replaced by Chris Smalling due to what looked like a knee injury. Having played all of his subs, Ferguson couldn't bring on another striker and while most of his decisions came off, United ended the game hanging on. It was a very nervy ending, but it could have been oh so different if Ferguson's strikers had taken their chances in the first-half.


This game didn't pass without controversy, but for once Suárez wasn't the villain on the piece - that role was taken by Howard Webb who needs to have a long hard look at himself in the mirror and maybe he needs to re-read the rulebook too.

Webb had a far less than perfect game. In fact, uncharacteristically, for Webb there was a catalogue of mistakes. He missed Vidic head the ball out for what should clearly have been a corner to Liverpool. He allowed Lucas to commit several professional fouls before eventually booking him on 45 minutes. He missed the foul on Kagawa that should have led to a penalty. Worst of all, and having already booked Glen Johnson on 75 minutes, he should have sent him off for a two armed rugby style take down on Valencia.

Fans understand the referee who shows leniency, especially in such big games - no one really wants to see a player getting his marching orders early on in the game, but rules are rules and inconsistency drives fans, managers and players to the edge of despair.

In the day's other big game in North London, City easily beat Arsenal - the two-nil final score somewhat flattered the Gunners' - it was a walk in the park. But the task was made all the easier on just 10 minutes when Mike Read sent off Laurent Koscielny for yet another rugby style take down on Dzeko. We can argue about the merits of that straight red card - but there can be no doubt that Johnson deserved a second yellow card for his challenge on Valencia at Old Trafford.

Liverpool fans might well argue that Vidic's goal was offside - but offside is often so contentious, it is a rule that is open to interpretation - some decisions are far easier to give and far more obvious, such as who touched the ball last before it went out of play and of course those rugby style challenges.
Howard Webb is without doubt our leading referee, but he let himself down on Sunday when he failed to apply the rules.