Liverpool capped off a wonderful week and left the door ajar on the Premier League title with a 4-1 mauling of Manchester United that draws them to within four points of their hosts.
It is a result that certainly does not lose United their third successive Premier League crown, but one that gives both their conquerors on Saturday lunchtime and Chelsea more than a sniff of catching them.
Rafa Benitez’s rant was, to many, the turning point of the season so how ironic it should be that, at Old Trafford and against United, a new pivotal moment in the campaign be created thanks to a penalty against United and the dismissal of Nemanja Vidic.
Vidic was also hugely culpable for the Fernando Torres goal that cancelled out Cristiano Ronaldo’s early penalty for the league leaders. Gerrard put his side in front from the spot before half-time, Fabio Aurelio doubled the advantage with a gorgeous free-kick after Vidic’s dismissal and Andrea Dossena capped off a scarcely believable result.
Rafa Benitez’s approach is hardly tailor-made to coming from behind so he, even more so than everyone else willing United to slip up, must have been particularly irked by his fellow Spaniard Jose Reina’s aberrational moment.
A penalty-saving specialist he might be but even that was no reason for Reina’s inexplicable charge off his line midway through the first half. Park Ji-Sung got to the ball first and the Liverpool keeper succeeded only in felling the South Korean. Alan Wiley pointed to the spot with an air of inevitably that was matched only by what followed – Reina guessed right but Ronaldo’s precision won over.
Benitez’s dismay must have been heightened by the fact that, aside from a much-needed Jamie Carragher block to deny Park, it was his side that looked the more threatening both before and after they went behind. No prizes for guessing their chief protagonists.
Torres and Gerrard both showed off touches of their trademarks – the former’s fleet of turn and the latter’s penchant to surge forward caused the United to defence to wobble – but it was from the most unlikely means that their equaliser arrived.
The words ‘mistake’ and ‘Nemanja Vidic’ are far from common bedfellows but the Serbian’s decision to let Martin Skrtel’s hoof up the pitch was an error in judgement every inch as severe and every bit as damaging as that of Reina’s. Torres snuck in to pilfer the ball and, one-on-one with Edwin Van der Sar, was too quick and too clinical to stop.
Talking of too quick….
It was Gerrard’s extensive stride that took him past the more conventionally pacy Patrice Evra who slid in with a lack of wisdom of Reina-esque proportions. The Liverpool captain dusted himself down and nestled the ball home via the hand of Van der Sar.
The time had come for questions to be asked. It is no secret that The Reds are past masters at protecting a lead but how good are United – who had not been behind at home in the league since the opening day of the season – at overhauling a deficit?
Their chances of doing so were helped no end by Reina. Three times in the opening 15 minutes of the second period he was horribly nervy in collecting the ball and was very nearly punished on the first occasion when he watched on as Ronaldo’s skewed cross from the left rattled against his near post.
No doubt still reeling from Ferguson’s half-time words of wisdom, United well and truly upped the tempo. Energetic and dominant on the ball they might have been, but messrs Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez were shackled superbly.
Tevez had but a sniff midway through the second half before Sir Alex Ferguson made a triple change that was most certainly not to be sniffed at. However, his grand plans of introducing Dimitar Berbatov, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs in one fell swoop were thrown into disarray barely two minutes later when Vidic’s day turned from bad to worse.
It was his clumsy touch that allowed Gerrard to get the wrong side of him and, when he hauled down the visitors’ skipper, Wiley was forced to flash just his second red card of the season. Aurelio stepped up to the ensuing free-kick and deliciously bent it past an unmoved Van der Sar.
Gerrard clumsily sent a late chance over but United's abysmal attempts to defend Reina's long ball allowed Dossena - for the second time in four days - to come off the bench to score a late goal by lifting the ball superbly over Van der Sar.
Game over, Premier League title race certainly not.