An uncharacteristically limp performance from United will have given some hope to those of an optimistic persuasion that Arsenal can still take the title, but much will depend on how Ferguson's team reacts to a week of disappointment in big games. United have shown their fighting qualities on numerous occasions over the years, and those qualities are not so pronounced in their main challengers, so it remains likely that United will take their 19th title and edge ahead of Liverpool overall.
United fans may console themselves with that very point- Liverpool may have won the battle, but United are winning the war. There is a bigger picture, though. Liverpool are showing genuine signs of revival under the man who presided over their last glory period. Despite the likely title triumph, there is a whiff of decay about the current United bunch. Giggs and Scholes are still relied upon too much, and this week contracts were signed by Carrick and Fletcher, player who have been around a long time but who have never threatened to reach the heights of the older guard. Carrick turned in a trademark anonymous performance alongside Scholes, while Fletcher was allowed to rest ahead of his own trademark, man of the match, kick-everything-that-moves performance against Arsenal next week.
Ferguson needs to spend money to bring in players with the craft to elevate Fletcher's graft, but in January he was inactive while Dalglish splashed piles of cash on Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll. The former was the star man yesterday, leading United's defence a merry dance at times, most notably when beating three feeble challenges to set up Kuyt's first tap in.
As against Chelsea, United suffered from poor decisons. It was already 2-0, but not yet half time, when Carragher launched into a disgraceful lunge on Nani, leaving the winger with a nasty gash on the shin; Carragher escaped with a yellow card. Then Rafael, angered further by a high tackle by Maxi Rodrigues, flew into a similarly reckless challenge- again only a yellow card.
United had a brief spell of menace early in the second half but Rooney remains a distant relative of the player he was last season and with Nani off the field after Carragher's assault, the Red Devils lacked the ingenuity to come back with conviction. When Kuyt gobbled up the rebound from Suarez's free kick to seal his hat trick and make it 3-0, the game was over.
Unusual that Ferguson stuck with 4-4-2 after the Chelsea game, and unusual too that he left out Fletcher. With no Park or Anderson or, needless to say, Hargreaves, United lacked industry in the middle of the park and Liverpool set a high tempo that they just couldn't match. They are certainly going through a difficult spell, and Chelsea's win over Blackpool tonight means that the Blues are now nine points behind with a game in hand. Still, they tend to react well to this kind of result, and Arsenal may feel the bite of the wounded animal next weekend... It will be interesting, in the event of an Arsenal defeat tomorrow, to see who looks more dejected in the FA Cup game, and who reacts better to their confidence crisis.