Kevin Keegan has been known to let his emotions run wild at times over the years, from his outburst against Sir Alex Ferguson on Sky Sports in the heat of the 1996 title race to the low points of his stint as England manager. But when Keegan claimed Manchester United’s team selection at Anfield on Saturday was an insult to Liverpool, it was easy to understand his dismay. With one teamsheet, Ferguson seemingly shot down the hype surrounding the clubs’ rivalry and, with it, the notion that Liverpool were once again a force to be reckoned with.
The decision to leave Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and Nani on the bench was perplexing at best. While Ferguson can point to Rooney’s questionable mindset after confirmation of his three-game international ban and Hernandez’s draining trip to represent Mexico against Brazil, surely the bottom line is that the United boss would have picked both if he had felt the need to. Instead, he took the calculated gamble that an under-strength team would still have the quality to outduel Liverpool – and that will have been a tough reality check for Reds fans.
This was a game that had received plentiful hype in the build-up, with Ferguson taking the surprising step of claiming it was a notch above Real Madrid-Barcelona as a rivalry. Such a boast was rendered ridiculous after the 90 minutes on Saturday and the fact that Rooney, in explosive form throughout the first two months of the season, spent close to 70 minutes on the bench.
Liverpool, meanwhile, were in no mood to rest star names, handing Steven Gerrard a first start of the season after recovering from a groin injury and unleashing Luis Suarez as the spearhead of their attack. The popular opinion on Merseyside is that a top four finish should be the minimum expectation this season, particularly after the vast sums spent this calendar year. But, again, Ferguson seemingly did not assess the threat to be so high – perhaps thinking that it was a squad still gelling and lacking the highest level star power of previous years.
On the one hand, picking Ji-Sung Park, Ryan Giggs and Darren Fletcher could be taken as a compliment to Liverpool’s up tempo style of play and the concern over losing the past three league games at Anfield. After all, Ferguson usually places his trust in this trio’s discipline and work rate for games against Chelsea and Arsenal. But why at the expense of Rooney, Hernandez and Nani? It would have been possible to play a 4-5-1 formation that featured at least five of these key men. And the experiment of playing Phil Jones in central midfield for the first time this season was another move that hardly suggested the game was “do or die” in Ferguson’s eyes.
Predictably, once United sent on the attacking cavalry, the game swung their way. It took Hernandez just five minutes to make his mark, heading home from Nani’s corner and it was all too easy to wonder how events might have unfolded had the champions picked a full strength team rather than one that included no more than seven of their manager’s first choice line-up. If Ferguson’s plan had been to contain Liverpool for 70 minutes then go for the jugular in the latter stages, it almost paid off. But that does not exactly mesh with his description of a fixture worthy of “El Clasico” comparisons.
More likely, the Scot sensed a result could be earned without increasing the workload on his prized assets. After all, the Premier League champions have the Manchester derby ahead on Sunday, as well as an important Champions League fixture against Otelul Galati in midweek – and Ferguson’s selections at Anfield seemed to suggest he had one eye on these upcoming tests.
Frankly, seeing United confidently go into battle at Anfield – and survive – without their game-changing stars must come as a blow to Liverpool fans. Not simply because it diminished the significance of the rivalry, but due to the impact it has on the Reds’ claims to have returned to relevance. Liverpool had the chances to take all three points on Saturday, but Ferguson may well consider himself the big winner, earning a share of the spoils while keeping several fringe players in shape and his star men fresh.