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Man Utd 2-1 Liverpool: Park heads home as United finally beat Liverpool

Ji-Sung Park for Manchester United

By Daniel Alston.

It was a case of the usual suspect and the unsung hero, as Wayne Rooney and Ji-Sung Park fired Manchester United back to the top of the Premier League with a 2-1 victory over Liverpool.

Having lost the last 3 of these hotly-contested clashes, United had something to prove to themselves and to the fans. It’s always much more than bragging rights at stake when these two play each other, and with the season’s close looming, the result may have a bearing on the title.

Liverpool on the other hand, find themselves very much out of the race for the crown, instead chasing that fourth and final Champions League spot. A disappointing season by their own standards, especially considering how close they came last year. Form rarely guarantees anything in these fixtures though, so it was sure to be a close game once more.

United started with the 4-5-1 formation they’ve shown to favour, especially in the bigger games; the energy of Park and Darren Fletcher on hand to add attacking impetus to sole striker Rooney. With Nani and Antonio Valencia occupying the flanks, veteran winger Ryan Giggs’ return from a broken arm gave much-needed experience on the bench alongside Paul Scholes.

Liverpool too opted for a similar formation, with skipper Steven Gerrard doubling up as a supporting striker as well as controlling the middle. Lacking another world-class frontman, it can often be a lonely and arduous task for Torres. Recently back from injury, he’ll have been looking to get the better of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic again.

The match began with the expected tenacity and pace, fuelled by a capacity Old Trafford crowd. Yet with only 5 minutes gone, it was the visitors who broke the deadlock.

Collecting the ball on the half-way line, Torres flicked a back-heel to send Gerrard forward. He in turn, found converted winger Dirk Kuyt on the right who saw the ever-speedy Torres entering the box. A pinpoint cross found the Spaniard’s head and he powered it beyond the helpless Van der Sar in clinical fashion. Gary Neville could be blamed for not being anywhere near his man, but take nothing away from the finish.

1-0 Liverpool – Torres (5)

On the back foot then, Manchester United had no choice but to press forward in search of an equaliser. Rooney worked a bit of magic on the edge of the box on 8 minutes, firing a shot just wide of Reina’s right-hand post.

Two minutes later though, the 24-year old found the back of the net, albeit amidst an air of controversy. Valencia, already getting the better of Emilio Insúa, cut inside and tore towards goal. Mascherano came across in an attempt to jostle him off the ball, and after a shirt tug and a pull of the Ecuadorian’s arm, United’s number 25 went to ground.

It was a foul, undoubtedly. But the Liverpool players and Benitez were furious that the decision given was for a penalty and not a free-kick. Replays showed the challenge started outside of the box, with the final contact coming within the area. Referee Howard Webb brushed away protests and gave Mascherano a yellow card. Torres was then seen to have kicked the penalty spot in frustration, as well as possible intent in affecting the set-piece.

With 32 goals already this season, Wayne Rooney stepped up to put away yet another. But firing to the right, his shot was matched by a brilliant save from Reina. Unfortunately for the Spanish stopper – currently seeking a new contract at Anfield – the ball fell kindly to Rooney, who slotted away the equaliser. All level at 1-1 then, and only 12 minutes on the clock.

1-1 Rooney (10)

The next 12 minutes, however, proved relatively uneventful. Both teams very much looking to attack, but not creating any clear cut chances.

In fact, the next real chance came a bit out of the blue. Valencia deceived Insúa and delivered a fantastic ball into the middle. Park had made his way into the space, but his header flashed wide of the far post. The home fans would have probably preferred Rooney to be on the end of that, what with the quality of his heading recently.

On the other side of the pitch, the consistently inconsistent Nani was having one of his good days. Putting effort in to get back and help out Patrice Evra, he surged forward regularly and was putting dangerous crosses in early and at pace. On the half-hour mark, the Portugal international fancied his chances, twisting and turning to send a low drive that Reina was forced to turn out for a corner.

Torres was getting frustrated by lack of service, and his efforts in chasing down red shirts were made redundant when he found his way into the referee’s book for a cynical slide on Park’s ankle. His stroppy side seems to have emerged with Liverpool’s failings this season, and an early yellow meant he would have to restrain himself for the next hour or so.

United pressed on, looking to take a lead in at half-time. Valencia and Evra both floating crosses into the box, with the latter finding the head of Park again, with the South Korean captain missing a second chance.

In injury time Rooney and Fletcher combined on the edge of the Liverpool box. Ageing defender Jamie Carragher went in tough and late on both, giving Webb no alternative but to award a free-kick and administer another yellow card. Dead-centre of the goal, Rooney attempted to curl one into the bottom left-corner, but Reina was equal and Liverpool were probably grateful to hear the whistle for the interval.

The second half began scrappily and even, with both team’s good moments of play cancelled out by sufficient marshalling at the back. Yet on the hour mark, one would be undone. Fletcher has shown his crossing capabilities in recent years, and over on the right he whipped in a teasing ball that Park threw himself at and finally got his goal. 2-1 to United, and the green and gold scarves are waving once more.

2-1 Park (60)

Somewhere in the aftermath, Valencia earned a booking, and tempers were quickly on the rise. Gary Neville went in high for a ball that Maxi Rodriguez had crouched for, leaving the January signing on the floor. Kuyt and Fletcher had a kick at each other and squared up, but Webb calmed the situation with ease.

Liverpool weren’t out of the game despite being outplayed for much of it. Torres had a great chance to get a second when a cross reached him 10-yards out, but he couldn’t bring it down. Vidic, looking to keep control of him, was guilty of going through the man dubbed El Nino and picked up United’s second booking.

Around the 75-minute mark Benitez looked to shake things up, bringing Aquilani on for Kuyt, and then the speedy Ryan Babel on for Maxi soon after. His opposite number countered this by swapping Nani for the experience of Ryan Giggs. The entrance of Yossi Benayoun in place of Lukas on 83 minutes was maybe later than needed, especially seeing as fourth-place rivals Tottenham and Aston Villa had already picked up points this weekend.

The partnership between Park and Rooney kept going, as the two goal scorers looked to further their side’s lead. Park sent Rooney clean through, only for him to be adjudged offside. The duo then combined on the edge of the box, ending in Rooney firing another shot just wide. Probably partly to shore things up, and partly to reward the Korean with an ovation from the crowd, Ferguson substituted Park for Paul Scholes with 5 minutes to go.

The end proved nervy for the home side. Five minutes of injury time on the board and a golden opportunity for Torres straight in front of goal. Ironically it may have been the penalty spot he damaged in the first half that caused him to mishit his shot, which Benayoun could only turn into an easy header for Van der Sar.

The final whistle was greeted with the sense of triumph, not only in terms of it being another step closer to retaining the title, but also that it dented Liverpool’s Champions League hopes. At the fourth attempt, United finally conquer the Merseysiders and go back to the summit of the table, putting pressure on Chelsea ahead of their visit to fellow Lancastrians, Blackburn.

Is this win a huge step towards the title? Are Liverpool now going to drop out of the top-four? Please leave your comments below…..

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