FEB 19 — Sometimes the best explanations are the simplest ones. Princess Diana died because her driver was drunk and going too fast. The Twin Towers were hit by Islamic terrorists, not CIA agents. The continued success of Simon Cowell and the Osbourne family is, indeed, one of the harbingers of the apocalypse.
To this list, we can add the reason Manchester United will, in all likelihood, move five points clear of Liverpool at the top of the Premier League table by beating Fulham.
They have a better team. Now this may come as a surprise to those still looking for clues to account for the change in the balance of power this season. In recent months, many otherwise rational people have become convinced that Liverpool have frittered away supremacy in the title race based on a combination of rogue and random factors.
Mind games played by Sir Alex Ferguson, the fractious contract negotiations of Rafael Benitez, boardroom unrest at Anfield or any number of peripheral events are believed to have inspired Manchester United to claw away at Liverpool's lead. This is good news for analysts, commentators and headline-writers, who have had, as The Flintstones theme tune puts it, a gay old time.
Without wishing to spoil the fun, however, it is more straightforward than that. Take the best Manchester United XI and the best Liverpool XI and put them together: how many of Benitez's team would get into Ferguson's? Not many. And that is why the championship is again heading for Old Trafford.
By my reckoning, maximum four, minimum two. Split the difference, call it three. Whichever way, there is nothing here to suggest that Liverpool can get the better of Manchester United this season, or next, without substantial upgrading in the summer.
Using it, Liverpool would be placed above Chelsea, although not by a huge distance. Manchester United, by contrast, would dominate Chelsea with just one player (Frank Lampard) or a generous three (Lampard plus Jose Bosingwa and Ashley Cole) getting into Ferguson's current team.
Assessment is made on form this season, not reputation. So while there may have been a time when Jose Reina, Liverpool's goalkeeper, would have shaded it from Edwin van der Sar, in goal for Manchester United, it is not right now when the Dutchman has beaten a long-standing British record for minutes without conceding a league goal, and is closing in on the 1,390- minute European record set by Dany Verlinden of Club Brugge in Belgium in 1990.
Javier Mascherano is another who would have walked into the holding midfield role at any club last season, but he has been a disappointment this year, perhaps as a result of his exertions for Argentina during the Olympics.
That leaves Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard as the two Liverpool players who would definitely be accommodated in the Manchester United team while, on a good day, one of Xabi Alonso or Mascherano could make the defensive midfield and an out-of-position Jamie Carragher would contend at full back.
Benitez's penchant for drama has drawn understandably negative comment as Liverpool's grip on the prize has weakened, but he cannot be held solely responsible. His squad deficiencies are being exposed just as Manchester United's strength in depth is at its most apparent.
Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, had it right. Asked about the mind games that famously denied Newcastle United the title in 1996, he replied that Newcastle's defence, not Kevin Keegan's outburst on Sky TV, determined the final placings. Logical explanations get you nowhere in the pantomime that is the Premier League, though, so instead we waste valuable time analysing pronouncements from Old Trafford, and their effect, at the expense of crediting what is arguably the finest squad of footballers assembled by an English club.
There has never been a group like the one at Manchester United. Gary Neville versus Wes Brown versus Rafael da Silva, and that is just for the right back spot. Wayne Rooney versus Dimitar Berbatov versus Carlos Tevez versus Cristiano Ronaldo. Yet we ignore this and become distracted by Rafa's rant.
There are similarities with the collapse of England's cricket team in Jamaica two weeks ago, in that several small factors might have made an impact on the cohesion of the team, but none were actually in the middle with bat in hand.
So Benitez does not get on with Rick Parry, the chief executive? Big deal.
Jimmy Greaves, in wonderfully flippant mode, summed up the inconsequence of departmental relationships on the dressing room, by recalling his time at Tottenham Hotspur. “Most of us didn't like Bill Nicholson, and Bill Nicholson didn't like us,” he said. “In fact, the only thing we all agreed on was that we couldn't stand the board of directors.”
Benitez's distance from Parry and George Gillett, one half of the partnership of American owners, may be a problem for the long-term stability of the club and could be very damaging in the summer if he leaves, but it should not be, here and now, an issue for the playing staff. Nor should Benitez's feelings about Ferguson's influence on English football have an effect.
That press conference tirade is often cited as explanation for Liverpool's reversal of fortune, but what would the fall-out be anyway? That Liverpool players rally around Benitez in the desire to stick one up United? They seem to have had that motivation for some while, judging by Mascherano's furious display at Old Trafford last season.
The idea that Benitez's claims put pressure on his players is also ridiculous; as if there were previously no pressure on a Liverpool team with an opportunity to win its first title in the modern era. Had Benitez taken a vow of silence until the end of the season, the tension at Anfield would still be oppressively thick.
The reality is that Liverpool are going up against a colossal group of players at United and no team, not even the lavishly-assembled Chelsea, can live with them right now. They have a unique multiplicity, so even the understudies of understudies would get into many good teams (as Mikael Silvestre did at Arsenal this season).
It is in many ways the perfect squad, because it also provides for the future in players such as Ben Foster, the reserve goalkeeper, and Jonny Evans, who has fitted in magnificently at centre half in the absence of Rio Ferdinand this season.
It is a sign of United's power that they could play an unconventional central midfield of Ryan Giggs and Darren Fletcher against Chelsea and still win comfortably. On another day it might be Michael Carrick and Anderson or Paul Scholes. If Benitez had United's squad he could rant at or fall out with who he liked: he would still win the league, as United almost certainly will.
Now combine the two teams, starting at the back. Both have good keepers, but there can be no argument that a man who has gone 1,212 minutes without conceding a league goal is among the players of the season. Van der Sar, therefore, gets the nod over Reina. He has been on a roll since emerging victorious from the penalty shoot-out at the Champions League final last season.
United have three strong right backs and the only alternative would be to overlook them all for Carragher, Benitez's defensive rock, out of position in a role he has occupied in key matches in Europe. This would be appealing because, to put it bluntly, he is not getting into this team at centre half.
Those positions are reserved for Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, an early contender for Footballer of the Year. Ferdinand's appearances through the season have been restricted by injury, but Vidic has been a constant and as a partnership they have now surpassed John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho of Chelsea.
At left back, United's Patrice Evra is the best in the country at the moment, ahead of Ashley Cole, of Chelsea.
Midfield brings another Manchester United landslide with Gerrard the only Liverpool player in a four that would comprise Ronaldo, Fletcher and Giggs. Torres would be the goalscoring spearhead, but his partner would be Rooney. Final total: Manchester United 8, Liverpool 3. And one of Liverpool's three gets in with a shoe-horn.
Despite the excellent job done by Roy Hodgson, Manchester United should beat Fulham and, at that moment, a daunting lead will open up. Liverpool still have to go to Old Trafford, so the battle is not over, but the biggest shock of the season would be if United threw it away from here.
If that were the case, there genuinely would be need for an investigation — into whether Ronaldo's heart was still in Manchester, whether Berbatov's arrival had unsettled the team, if Ferguson was correct in his treatment of Tevez.
Were Manchester United to blow it, we would all be looking behind the story for clues. It is easier to work out what has gone wrong at Liverpool, though: the answer is right there, on the teamsheet. — The Daily Mail