Little pleases Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson more than the chance to revel in victory over Liverpool. Perhaps nothing. He launches in like a hippo charging toward a mudhole, energetically rolling around and making as much of a splash as possible.
"It could have been a cricket score," he said after United's 3-2 victory Sunday. "It was a game we absolutely dominated. For Liverpool, this is a catastrophe."
Ferguson is no stranger to hyperbole, and he rarely misses a chance to pull faces at Liverpool, but his comments bear some scrutiny. The final score and the tension of the final 10 minutes will ensure that this is remembered as a decent derby. But for the first hour of the match, its billing as a "meeting of giants" was at odds with the spectacle; the visitors could have been any of a group of mid-table sides struggling to come to terms with United at home.
Barring a few individuals, there is a gulf between this Liverpool side and the Anfield teams that built this old rivalry. On Sunday, it was all knickers -- big, gray Bridget Jones knickers -- and no fur coat. United's Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher ought to have had their hands full against a midfield trio, but Steven Gerrard was stifled behind Raul Meireles, who's barely shared how-do-you-dos with his teammates yet. Christian Poulsen is a player of such limited input that the much-maligned Lucas Leiva was missed.
Ferguson insisted that Liverpool's only threat had come from decisions made by the officials, and it's hard to argue that it offered more. Two set pieces, two shots on target, two goals. But Liverpool manager Roy Hodgson, who felt that Ferguson's comments were "a bit harsh," will take credit for the added danger that came with David Ngog's introduction just after the hour. Faced with two strikers, the sometimes-shaky judgment of players like Jonny Evans and John O'Shea was more likely to be exposed.
For all the majesty of Dimitar Berbatov's hat-trick performance, which both managers focused on afterward, there will be a few concerns crashing Ferguson's party. Both Liverpool goals came from individual errors, which he'll perhaps write off, but the fact that Liverpool was able to gain momentum from them, having looked so uninspired, is harder to ignore. Had Fernando Torres done better marking Berbatov on corners, Liverpool would have escaped with a draw.
It's no coincidence that Liverpool's goals came as Scholes was starting to tire -- Joe Cole sauntered through the center to lay on the pass to Torres that drew the penalty. No midfield is impenetrable but United is in danger of losing the knack of defending a lead. The sooner Michael Carrick is fit and on form, the better. Anderson's fitness will be important, too. Scholes' distribution was once again superb, but he'll need to share the workload.
The season's biggest worry for United -- and Arsenal, which missed out on a chance to move into first place temporarily after conceding a last-minute equalizer to Sunderland on Saturday -- is the potency of Chelsea. It is hard to find even minor fault with Carlo Ancelotti's men after five league games in which they have scored 21 goals and conceded only one (and if all the goals they let in are as delightful as Scott Parker's lob, there'll be few complaints).
Ancelotti reluctantly criticized his team for a lack of focus in the second half of Sunday's 4-0 win over Blackpool, but he has three of the league's five top scorers. The Blues are rampant.
They've yet to face a true test, of course, which will perhaps come from Manchester City (away) and Arsenal (home) in the next couple of weeks. But Chelsea is robust, fast, skillful and goes straight for the jugular every time it's in opposition territory. As the cliché goes, it's a marathon, not a sprint, but Chelsea has set off at such a pace that it can almost afford a stumble further down the track.
Newcastle will be next up against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, in Wednesday's League Cup fixture. A composed 1-0 win over an Everton side that managed to be Merseyside's worst representative over the weekend won't shrink the odds on an away triumph, but manager Chris Hughton should have seen enough from his team at Goodison Park to be looking down the fixture list with renewed optimism.
Everton's midfield was supposed to be its strength, even without Tim Cahill, who's still getting over a knee injury. Newcastle's midfield had been outplayed by Blackpool's a week earlier; the tussle between Mikel Arteta and Alan Smith and Joey Barton worried some Newcastle fans almost as much as the matchup of Steven Pienaar, on Everton's left, with flailing new right back James Perch.
Hughton switched to a five-man midfield, though, pulling Kevin Nolan back toward Barton and switching Smith for Cheik Tiote, who arrived from FC Twente this summer, in behind them. Arteta, partnered by John Heitinga, struggled to win the ball and, in the first half at least, rarely kept it for long.
Though it left striker Andy Carroll fairly isolated up front, winning that central battle brought dividends out wide for Newcastle. Wayne Routledge's breaks prevented Pienaar from creating too much, and Hatem Ben Arfa sprinkled his magic across the middle in his first start for Newcastle. He may have a bad-boy reputation, but he worked hard and diligently applauded the traveling supporters at the final whistle. His goal was a firecracker.
Ben Arfa and Tiote, who got stuck in protecting his defenders from the start and wasn't shy about surging forward with the ball, look like excellent acquisitions. They should be certain starters when fit. But Hughton took care to point out that "they were both able to [play well] because it was a real good team performance," and Jose Enrique, in particular, linked up nicely with Ben Arfa.
First and foremost, however, you have to salute the contribution of Barton to the tempo and measure of Newcastle's play. He looked completely unharassed as he set his side on its way and moved in to fill the spaces left behind. Everton was poor, but it's not often teams go to Goodison and get away with playing like the home side for as long as Newcastle was able to.