Dirk Kuyt sealed a place for Liverpool in the 5th round of the FA Cup by banging home a late winner in front of the Kop.
The match, tied at 1-1, looked heading for an Old Trafford replay until the 88th minute when Kuyt, Manchester United’s recent nemesis, cleanly struck the ball low past David De Gea after a long ball was flicked down by Andy Carroll.
Daniel Agger had earlier put the Reds first on the score-sheet when the Danish centre-back headed home a cross generated from a Steven Gerrard corner. The visitors responded shortly through Park Ji-Sung who cancelled out Agger's strike with a perfect finish from 12 yards.
United controlled the midfield for larger parts of the game with Liverpool defending quite deep most of the time. But United’s possession lacked penetration and Liverpool used that to the fullest advantage when Dirk Kuyt slotted home the winner.
The intense build-up to the match meant that all eyes were on Patrice Evra, who was involved in a verbal exchange with Luis Suarez when these two teams met each other at Anfield in October. Suarez was eventually handed an eight-game ban for alleged use of abusive words during the said incident.
Steven Gerrard kicked off Evra’s hostile reception with a perfunctory handshake when the Liverpool captain didn’t even offer a stare to his United counterpart. The Anfield crowd then began their proceedings as Evra was booed and jeered throughout the game. The French left-back, however, had a decent game until the 88th minute when his poor defending had a significant role to play in Kuyt’s winner.
The starting line-ups of both teams missed a number of regular names. Kenny Dalglish made four changes from the side that beat Manchester City in the Carling Cup semi-final on Wednesday. Craig Bellamy, Dirk Kuyt and Glenn Johnson were replaced by Andy Carroll, Maxi Rodriguez and Martin Kelly while Jamie Carragher was deployed in a rare holding midfield role.
United’s long injury list meant that they missed a number of players but the absent name that left United fans’ faces concerned was that of their talismanic striker Wayne Rooney. The England international failed to recover in time from the injury he picked up during the win against Bolton at Old Trafford last week. Park Ji-Sung came in for the injured Nani while Paul Scholes replaced Rooney to make it a five-man midfield. De Gea was also back in the starting line-up after a spell on the bench.
The home team started off brightly when Maxi Roriguez saw his shot from distance saved by David De Gea. Chances came flowing in from both sides as Steven Gerrard got a shot away from outside the box while Antonio Valenicia’s long ranger kissed the framework of the Liverpool goal. The match was evenly balanced until the 21st minute when the deadlock was finally broken by Daniel Agger.
It was a well-taken corner from Steven Gerrard that did the damage. De Gea’s problems with high balls were fruitfully exploited by Liverpool as the red shirts crowded the 21-year-old, leaving him stranded while Agger rose above all to head it home.
But United did not show any signs of despondency as the away team enjoyed long spells of possession from that point. The patient build-up eventually paid off when Rafael latched onto a great flick from Antonio Valencia, cutting the ball into the penalty box which was hammered past Pepe Reina by Park-Ji-Sung. The score at half-time read 1-1.
When play resumed after the interval, United looked more menacing of the two. Agger survived a half-hearted handball appeal in the box while United wingers kept sending searching balls into the box.
It was now time for Liverpool to ask questions from the referee when Chris Smalling handled the ball inside the box. This appeal was stronger than the previous one but the referee didn’t go searching for his whistle as the contact was clearly non-deliberate.
Within a minute, the home team survived a scare when Danny Welbeck timed a run between Kelly and Skrtel, beating the charging Reina to a throughball. The Mancunian flicked the ball towards the Liverpool goal but the danger was eventually snuffed out by Skrtel who recovered in time to clear the ball into safety.
Not surprisingly, Dalglish brought Kuyt and Adam on for Maxi and Carragher respectively, and Liverpool suddenly looked in better control of the midfield. Gerrard forced a save from De Gea with a curling free-kick, before the Liverpool captain was replaced by Craig Bellamy.
Alex Ferguson too threw Javier Hernandez into the frame in search of that desperate winner. That marked the end of a great match for Paul Scholes, who once again provided a perfect exhibition of the art of ball-retention and distribution. It was an absolute master-class from the Manchester United legend.
Scholes’s withdrawal proved to be the turning point as Manchester United lost control of the midfield in his absence. However, the match still looked all set for a draw. But Dirk Kuyt had other plans as he blasted home the winner in front of the Kop, sending a wave of delirium and ecstasy around Anfield.
The Dutchman had a chance to put the icing on the cake when a Carroll header bounced back off the post to fall in front of him. Kuyt collected the ball but hit it wide of De Gea’s post.
But that bore little significance in the end. Suarez’s name echoed around Anfield at full-time as a resurgent Liverpool side beat their fiercest rivals to march into the 5th round of the FA Cup.
Follow Pulaha Chaudhuri on Twitter @pulaha_S_P
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