The FA Cup arrived at Anfield on Saturday afternoon for what was, undoubtedly, the pick of the 4th Round ties. Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United arrived on the Red half of Merseyside hoping to repeat last year’s feat and knock Liverpool out of the FA Cup at the early stages. Kenny Dalglish’s Reds, fresh from mid-week Carling Cup heroics against Manchester City, were determined not to let history repeat itself, and keen to send Ferguson’s men back to Manchester empty handed.
The match kicked off early, 12.45 GMT, to help make sure that the atmosphere didn’t boil over, bearing in mind that this was the first meeting of the teams since the Evra/Suarez incident, and wounds have not yet healed. Liverpool started brightly, dominating possession in the early stages, Jamie Carragher’s inclusion as a holding midfielder gave the home side an extra man in that area and allowed them to keep the ball. Maxi Rodriguez benefitted from this situation early on, as he found himself in space 25 yards out and smashed a dipping shot, which De Gea did well to save, diving to his right. The next chance was United’s, Antonio Valencia, who’s recently been approaching his best form in a long time, ended his driving run with a fierce shot, across Pepe Reina, which came back off the post.
The deadlock was broken on 21 minutes. Jose Enrique’s, goal-bound, shot from the edge of the area was deflected wide, resulting in a corner. With Andy Carroll making a nuisance of himself in the middle, David de Gea’s fragility from set-pieces and high crossed balls was exposed yet again for all the world to see, as he allowed Carroll to put him off and Daniel Agger to head the ball into the, practically open, goal. Liverpool responded to going a goal in front by dropping a little deeper and sitting back, handing the initiative to Manchester United. By this stage Giggs had moved out to the left and Park had dropped in behind Welbeck for United, allowing them to match up in midfield in terms of numbers. With Carragher’s natural defensive instincts forcing him to sit deep and not allowing him to bring the ball out and push on, United began to dominate the midfield and therefore possession.
For the most part Liverpool were comfortable, Manchester United failing to convert possession into goal scoring opportunities, however, a slack piece of defending from Jose Enrique gifted Ferguson’s team the chance they were looking for. Six minutes before half time, the Spaniard failed to dispossess Rafael down Liverpool’s left hand side, instead allowing the full back to get away from him. The Brazilian’s burst to the by-line ended with a precise low cut back, which was thumped into Reina’s bottom left hand corner by Ji Sung Park, arriving on cue. 1-1 at halftime.
The second half began in much the same vein as the first half had ended, Liverpool’s system was allowing Manchester United too much space in midfield, and consequently, they were able to pass the ball around the hosts with relative ease. The warning signs were there for Liverpool, Michael Carrick found Welbeck with an incisive through-ball, the young forward got to the ball before Reina but, instead of shooting he flicked the ball round the Liverpool goalkeeper, allowing Martin Skrtel to clear the danger expertly. Kenny Dalglish needed to change things, and change it he did, with a double substitution on 68 minutes, Maxi and Carragher made way for Adam and Kuyt, giving Liverpool more creativity and attacking impetus. This switch was quickly augmented when Dalglish removed his, visibly tired Captain, Steven Gerrard from the mix and replaced him with, Wednesday’s hero, Craig Bellamy.
The changes had an immediate impact as Liverpool began to press United further up the pitch, win the ball back more easily and pass it better when they were in possession; when Ferguson replaced Scholes, Liverpool’s midfield dominance was confirmed, and it was a combination of these factors which gave them the platform to go on and win the game.
Gerrard tested De Gea with a free-kick before he departed, and Kuyt was off target with a header, but chances were at a premium in this fiercely contested cup tie between the bitterest of rivals, until, Dirk Kuyt’s 50th goal for Liverpool booked the Reds a place in in the draw for Round 5. In the 88th minute, a long kick by Reina found Carroll, whose perfectly cushioned flick on, was right into the path of Dirk Kuyt, who’d lost Patrice Evra; the Dutchman was unerring in his finish, slamming the ball powerfully inside De Gea’s near post, sending the Anfield crowd into pandemonium.
Another fantastic advert for the FA Cup; the game, whilst not necessarily delivering bundles of goal-scoring opportunities and edge of the seat excitement, was played at an enormous intensity. Two heavyweights of the game, both desperate to win, with the managers fielding the strongest sides available, an electric atmosphere and late, late drama; you can’t ask for much more from a 4th FA Cup tie. It’s Liverpool, and their delighted manager,Kenny Dalglish, who go through, whilst Ferguson’s Manchester United drop out of another competition.