Another ferocious first-half display and another statement victory by Manchester United were overshadowed by 38 seconds of madness by Steven Gerrard at Anfield on Sunday.
Gerrard capped an awful 12 months for club and country with his brief, violent appearance as a half-time substitute in his last match against the hated foe. He came on with Liverpool behind and being outplayed. At once he put in a crunching tackle on Juan Mata, the first-half scorer. Gerrard bounced up, collected the ball and flicked it to a teammate as Ander Herrera slid in. Then Gerrard stamped on Herrera.
Martin Atkinson, the referee, composed himself and then showed Gerrard the red card.
It wasn’t the fastest red card in English league history. In 2007, Keith Gillespie, a former Manchester United player, came on as a sub for Sheffield United while play was stopped for a throw in against Reading. Before the throw was taken, he thumped the opponent he had gone to mark.
The inevitable suspension means that, if Brendan Rodgers picks him, Gerrard now has a maximum of six games left in his Liverpool career. Then he heads to Los Angeles, his aura tarnished by Sunday’s red card and by the errors which undermined by Liverpool’s title chances and England’s World Cup hopes last season. The Galaxy could serve as Gerrard’s witness protection program, allowing fans to forget, or his Foreign Legion, allowing Gerrard to forget.
Jamie Carragher, who spent 23 years with Gerrard at Liverpool, bit out his words slowly through clenched jaw in his new role as an analyst for Sky, which broadcast the game.
“He’s always been The Man. The captain. As soon as he’s fit he goes straight back into the team,” Carragher said. “Watching the first half from the bench he will have been disappointed. Liverpool weren’t playing well. They were losing 1-0. Watching players in his position not performing great he will have been thinking ‘Why am I not playing? Why am I not on that pitch?’”
“Steven Gerrard is an emotional player,” Carragher said “It’s taken teams I’ve played in into some unbelievable moments. Sometimes he hasn’t played with his brain and when he’s done well, it’s been his heart.”
“The flip side,” Carragher said, is Gerrard’s history of red cards in the games that matter most to Liverpool fans. This was his seventh, two of those have come against Everton and two against Manchester United. All, said Carragher, were straight reds.
The Internet hooted its derision. “Gone in less than 60 seconds,” was a popular Tweet. So were heat maps of Gerrard’s brief, flaming, appearance.
Meanwhile, Gerrard was in the locker room putting on his jacket and club tie ready to go out and face the cameras after the game.
“I've just come out here to apologize to the dressing room and supporters," he told Sky, refusing to criticize the officials. “The decision was right.”
Gerrard might not be the player he was, which is part of his problem, but in important ways he is still The Man.
United at last: Gerrard’s red card did change the tone of a game that United had controlled.
For the second time in two week, United dominated the first half against a rival for a top four place but suddenly United seemed to remember who they were playing. Tempers frayed. Boots flew. Phil Jones received a yellow card for smashing into Jordan Henderson.
Mata added a sumptuous second but after Daniel Sturridge replied for Liverpool, things grew increasingly frantic.
“It was chaotic out there at times,’’ Michael Carrick, the United midfielder told Sky.
United moved five points clear of fifth-placed Liverpool and on to the coat tails of City and Arsenal in the fight for second. It looks the part.
Perhaps it has taken Louis van Gaal eight months to work out who his best players are and what tactics make best use of their strength. But what has been striking about United’s first-half displays against Tottenham and Liverpool is not the formation but the attitude. United went for Liverpool with pace and purpose. It looks dangerous again.
Safe hands: The enigma that is Chelsea was summed up by Thibaut Courtois’ strange afternoon at Hull on Sunday.
Chelsea cruised into a two-goal lead in the first nine minutes. Eden Hazard, so elusive that Hull defenders could not even get close enough to attempt a tackle, curled in the first. Diego Costa curled in the second. Yet the warning signs were already there.
In the sixth minute, Abel Hernández broke through. Courtois stopped him. After the Costa goal, Chelsea surrendered the midfield. Courtois saved well from Dame N’Doye. The goalie could do nothing when Andrew Robinson arrowed a low cross through the goalmouth and Ahmed Elmohamady charged in to score at the far post.
Barely a minute later, Courtois, so good with his hands, helped Hull level with his feet. Under pressure, he miss-controlled a back pass and stabbed the ball to Hernández who scored.
Hull bombarded the Chelsea goal with shots for the rest of the half. Courtois kept them out.
Chelsea’s defense only looked secure when its attack had the ball near the Hull penalty area. For the first 20 minutes of the second half Chelsea wove mesmerizing patterns around the Hull penalty area, but the massed home defense held.
After 62 minutes, the Tigers broke out of their cage. Courtois flew to save a drive Elmohamady, though he only pushed the ball to Jake Livermore who smashed it back. Courtois, on his knees somehow arched to stop that. This time he palmed it to Gaston Ramirez. As he shot, Courtois leapt high to claw the ball away one-handed. It was as if the goalie had done it on purpose, giving Hull chances so he could save them, in the most spectacular fashion. Suddenly he looked unbeatable again.
In all Hull managed 19 attempts on goal – a huge number against the vaunted Chelsea defense. Eight were on target. Chelsea, not for the first time this season, scored with every shot on target. Allan McGregor did not save one, giving Chelsea the lead when he fumbled Loïc Rémy’s tame shot over the line.
Courtois had one last save to make, diving at Hernández’ feet in added time. He had saved his reputation.
The rumble of distant Gunners: Arsenal’s 2-1 victory at Newcastle on Saturday kept it one point behind Manchester City in second and, briefly, cut the gap to leader Chelsea to four.
Since being utterly outplayed at White Hart Lane on February 7, Arsenal has won six straight league games. In that time it has also achieved impressive cup victories at Manchester United and Monaco. Olivier Giroud is as hot as Harry Kane. Giroud’s two goals took his tally to six in the last five league games. The first, a deliberate prod of the knee, which deflected a shot into the corner of the net, was pure, deadly instinct.
Yet Giroud’s strikemate seems to have reverted to Danny “can’t hit the side of a barn” Welbeck. The recent strong run also includes one of Arsenal’s most humiliating European defeats, at home to Monaco.
The game at Newcastle echoed a recent pattern against struggling teams. Arsenal again rolled to a two-goal lead, but instead of putting the game away, allowed an overmatched opponent to hit back and finished clinging to a 2-1 victory.
“Lucky Arsenal”? It has a familiar ring to it.
Watch that coeficcient: The failure of any English club to reach the last 16 in Europe for the first time since 1993 caused a brief burst of breast-beating in England, before everyone’s attention turned back to the Premier League.
In the short-term, one season of failure won’t do any harm. Germany will overtake England for second place in the UEFA table that determines European places. Both are way behind Spain but also far ahead of Italy. The top three nations all gain four precious Champions League spots.
One problem for England its clubs refuse to respect the Europa League. That competition counts for almost as much as the Champions league in calculating UEFA’s “country coefficient”. There are two Italian clubs in the last eight this year, their results will boost Italy’s score for five seasons. If that trend continues, the number of English clubs playing in the Champions League could be reduced because they refuse to take its poor relation seriously.