In what was undoubtedly the tie of the FA cup 3rd round, United pitted their wits against arch rivals Liverpool. On the back of sacking their much maligned manager Roy Hodgson, Liverpool turned to Kenny Dalglish to save their wilting season from eroding away into mid table obscurity. United on the other hand were on a high, having remained undefeated in the league all season, and seen their lead at the top extend to 2 points with games in hand to come. However, injuries to Rooney, Van Der Sar and Vidic posed difficult selection problem’s for Ferguson, especially in defence, with Jonny Evans chosen to partner Rio Ferdinand and deal with Fernando Torres, despite the Northern Irishman’s lack of first team games since the humiliation at West Ham.
In true United v Liverpool fashion, the game started with a moment of high drama as within a minute, Dimitar Berbatov latched onto a Darren Fletcher pass, and was deemed to have been tripped by Daniel Agger by referee Howard Webb. Up stepped the ever dependable Ryan Giggs, who dispatched an inch perfect penalty into the corner giving United the perfect start and leaving the Liverpool players furious. Replays showed that although there was slight contact on Berbatov, it was very minimal and doubtful as to whether it was enough to make the Bulgarian go to ground. However, in this day and age rightly or wrongly, contact in the penalty area means a penalty, and usually honest players like Berbatov feel pressure from their managers and fans alike to go to ground easily to persuade referees.
In a game which lacked much goalmouth action, the second talking point of the match again featured Howard Webb as the main protagonist. This time however, there was no mistaking his decision to send off Steven Gerrard for a reckless two footed lunge on Michael Carrick, of which Gerrard had no defence as he was given his marching orders. Gerrard’s dismissal all but ended Liverpool’s realistic hope of victory in the game, as United were able to relax and probe the resistant Liverpool defence. It took a moment of great fortune to prevent the game from being over as a contest at half time, as Jonny Evans’ header rattled against the post seconds before the whistle.
After the drama of the first half, United sought calm in the second, methodically building attacks with the evergreen Giggs at the heartbeat of all that was good in the United performance. Giggs rolled back the years with a series of mazy runs, and him an Evra combined brilliantly at times down the United left, giving young Liverpool full back Martin Kelly a torrid time. To their credit however, Liverpool were resilient, preventing United from exploiting the extra man advantage, despite themselves struggling to threaten the United goal with Fernando Torres looking out of sorts.
United’s keeper Tomasz Kuszczak was a bystander for large parts of the game, but was exceptional when called upon by Fabio Aurellio’s free kick, with the Pole springing across the goal and palming it away at full stretch in Liverpool’s only serious attempt on target. United responded well from this scare, and should have killed the game off minutes later during a goal mouth scramble which saw Pepe Reina making at least 3 fantastic saves to deny Berbatov, Evans and Rafael in succession. Any fears of a tense finish were not required, as United meticulously went about keeping Liverpool penned back in their half, and not giving them a sniff of possession of the ball. This United side might not be the most flamboyant under Ferguson, but they have a winning mentality, and are shaping up into a very formidable force. Liverpool on the other hand have a long struggle this season to try and salvage what remains of a very frail squad, and defeat against Everton next week could be another nail in the coffin. United go on to face Southampton in the 4th round, a trip many reds will be relishing, and one United will expect to win to continue what would be an overdue cup run.