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Sunday 17 December 2017

Pettiness of it all outshone by United's class to hold off Reds

IT was just as well that the second half began so brightly, as we were in danger of remembering this latest fixture between England's two most successful clubs as the most vitriolic in its history.

Within a minute of the second half kicking off, as if under instruction to make this a memorable footballing occasion, Manchester United took the lead. Ryan Giggs swung a corner towards the near post, where, under pressure from Michael Carrick, Jordan Henderson could only skim the ball off the top of his head. It shot across the box and fell invitingly for a completely unmarked Wayne Rooney, who swept his shot home with real conviction.

A minute later, Antonio Valencia robbed Jay Spearing on the edge of the Liverpool penalty area, released a quick pass to Rooney, who hammered his effort under Jose Reina. What a relief to be able to concentrate on the football.



Ugly

The match began with ugly pettiness. Into a tense and fraught atmosphere, Luis Suarez had interposed himself like an Alka Seltzer dropped into a glass of water. Despite the fact that on Wednesday his manager said he definitely would engage in formal pleasantries, during the handshake before kick off, Suarez refused Patrice Evra's hand.

Next in line, United's keeper David De Gea tried to pull Suarez's arms towards Evra's still extended hand, but the Uruguayan brushed him off. It is, presumably, how you demonstrate the act of moving on in South American culture.

With the biliousness dial now turned up, the first half was forgettable. Maybe the players could not concentrate on the requirements of the match, diverted as they were by the politics.

Liverpool, with Spearing and Steven Gerrard shielding their defence, played deep and conservative. For some reason, eschewing the muscular approach that had unsettled United's keeper at Anfield a fortnight before, they played with Suarez on his own up front. A swift break from the South American, terminated by Rio Ferdinand's lunging challenge, was the sum of their attacking enterprise.

But then United, despite the occasional flourish from Rooney, Valencia and Danny Welbeck, offered little more. This was a half featuring more square balls than a convention of Lego men.

And then, just before the break, Suarez, who had been playing as if the world was conspiring against him, booted the ball at Valencia after the whistle for time had sounded.

In the tunnel, as the players made their way to the dressing rooms, there was an extended altercation between Suarez and several United players, led by their skipper Evra. The police intervened. And those who admire this game sighed at the woeful pettiness of it all.



Relief

What a relief, then, that something approaching a match broke forth in the second half.

United, comfortably ahead and comfortable on the ball, maintained possession and control. Paul Scholes and Giggs, the oldest midfield combination in town, pulled the strings; Rooney looked in the mood to win it on his own. But comfortable is what Chelsea thought they were last weekend.

And an excellent finish by -- much to the pleasure of visiting fans -- Suarez, after a Charlie Adam freekick was not properly dealt with by the United defence, made the last 10 minutes more nervy for the home side.

Indeed, it was only another fantastic save by De Gea from Glen Johnson's sharp, long-range shot in injury time that preserved the points for United.

Oh, and just for the record, Evra didn't shake Suarez's hand after the final whistle. He did a merry, celebratory jig round the entire ground instead.

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