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Liverpool make Ferguson suffer

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Phil McNulty | 20:54 UK time, Saturday, 14 March 2009

Sir Alex Ferguson was like an old streetfighter lying bloodied and beaten in his corner - defiantly insisting his victorious opponent had never laid a glove on him.

Ferguson was selling the message that Manchester United were the better side against Liverpool at Old Trafford. No-one was buying that when a 4-1 scoreline in favour of the visitors slightly contradicted his argument.

Liverpool's win was as impressive as it was deserved and the even the lavish victory margin provoked few arguments, despite Ferguson's protestations.

And while this landmark triumph for Rafael Benitez's side may not have blown the door to the Premier League title wide open, there is little doubt the emphatic manner of the win has pushed it slightly ajar.

The fall-out from Liverpool's win as far as United are concerned needs to be placed in its proper context. Ferguson was correct when he insisted United would have happily settled for a four-point lead with a game in hand if it was offered to him a few weeks ago.

And maybe this defeat, if not its scale, has been coming after a spell when United have been digging out victories as opposed to sweeping opponents aside.

In other words, anyone hoping to detect vital signs of a Manchester United meltdown must not get their hopes up on the basis of a single, albeit surprising and damaging, defeat.

The smart money remains on a swift United recovery and an eventual title triumph, but this was Liverpool's day and Benitez's traditionally impassive post-match demeanour must have surely disguised the fact that he was dancing inside.Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard celebrate Liverpool's win

Benitez was pleased for Liverpool's fans, the club and even his backroom staff. As ever, he kept his own emotions under wraps - refusing even to rise to the understandable bait offered about his public outburst against his vanquished opponent Ferguson in January.

But Benitez, a renowned plotter and strategist of his team's fortunes, could not have scripted the last five days any better than they have turned out.

He has watched his side dismantle Real Madrid and Manchester United, two of the game's most decorated clubs, in that time. And if Tuesday's Champions League win was accompanied by understandable claims of Real's incompetence, no-one must take an ounce of credit away from Liverpool on this occasion.

Liverpool were positive, powerful, committed and dangerous. It was a performance almost without flaw, goalkeeper Pepe Reina's uncharacteristic uncertainty apart.

They are, however, arguably the most baffling, contrary side in the Premier League - and it is this split personality that will be to blame if they do not win the title.

Liverpool have now done the double over Manchester United (despite going behind in both games) and Chelsea while earning a draw against Arsenal at The Emirates.

But home draws against Stoke City, Fulham, West Ham United and Manchester City will be offered up as crucial evidence in the case against them as a title-winning side.

At Old Trafford, Liverpool showed everything admirable about their nature. They proved they are good enough to win the title - they just have not proved it often enough.

Liverpool survived the loss of influential midfield man Xabi Alonso, as well as defender Alvaro Arbeloa in the warm-up, although the latter blow offered Sami Hyypia the opportunity to again demonstrate what an outstanding servant he has been for the club.

If Liverpool wish to present mitigating circumstances for some of their perceived failings this season, then the reduced opportunity to pair Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres together because of injury will top the list.

Gerrard's importance to Liverpool has been underscored time and again does not need repeating here - but it was the magic of Torres that turned this game on its head.

It is a big call to make, but is there a better striker in world football than Torres? Not in my book.

Nemanja Vidic has been an immovable object this season, and no-one would be foolish enough to deliver too harsh a criticism after a rare bad day - but Torres made it a harrowing afternoon for the normally faultless Serb.

The devastating effect Torres had on Vidic with his pace and menace was remarkable to witness. When Vidic was sent off for a foul on Gerrard late on it was a merciful release from his torture.

The pivotal moment came in the 28th minute when the mere presence of Torres induced fatal hesitation in Vidic's mind, ending with him being embarrassed by the Spain striker's burning pace for Liverpool's equaliser.

On this incident the game turned. Torres, in tandem with Gerrard, spread uncertainly like a disease through United's record-breaking rearguard, with Vidic its main victim.

It was like watching the armour fall off a previously impregnable warrior. He was spooked by Torres and it wrecked his performance.

No-one should put Vidic away after this because Torres has the talent to torment the best defenders in the world. Vidic is one of the world's best defenders so this was the proof of the carnage that Torres can inspire.

So what has this done to the title race? Are Liverpool ready to mount a late surge? Previous form suggests no-one could predict that, but United still hold all the cards.

Liverpool captain Gerrard and Benitez talked up the possibility of further joy by suggesting they have proved United are beatable. They are not untouchables.

True enough, but it is an argument with a fatal flaw. Not all of the sides Liverpool are relying on to repeat their feat can call on a Gerrard or a Torres - no minor consideration.

The elation of Liverpool's supporters and the barely confined joy of their players suggest they live in real hope of catching the champions, and their renewed optimism is fully justified by the resurgence of the past week.

And the thousands of empty seats around the Old Trafford in the closing seconds will only have added to Liverpool's unbridled pleasure.

Reality and past records suggest, however, that United's powers of recovery are such that it will take more than this humbling experience against their fiercest rivals to divert them off a course that will take them to the Premier League title.

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