Commentary

Drab draw for United and Liverpool

Updated: October 17, 2011, 1:35 PM ET
By James Tyler | ESPN.com

Remember when derbies were supposed to be better than this? Granted, Manchester United's awkward schedule -- Liverpool, then an early Champions League must-win against Romanian giants Otelul Galati, followed by Man City next weekend -- meant that Sir Alex Ferguson's tinkering had to be as meticulous and methodical as ever, but regardless, you'd never expect a clash of these most venomous of rivals to be so muted and, as Kenny Dalglish put it, so "sterile."

Maybe I'm spoiled from years of frenetic big-scoring North London derbies or the usual bone-rattling maelstrom when these two sides meet, but their first Prem draw since September 2005 was particularly deflating. Not least because it allowed the Manchester City Oil-Stars to take hold of first place after a 4-1 battering of their feeder club, Aston Villa.

For Liverpool, it was a precious chance wasted to stick one to the Old Trafford boys; having beaten United in its past three meetings at Anfield, outscoring the Red Devils 7-2 over that span, King Kenny surprisingly packed his midfield and opted for chess-match tedium rather than title-winning aggression. Fergie, for his part, displayed his cagey intention by picking an XI devoid of the game-changing skills (for better or worse) of Wayne Rooney, Chicharito and Nani, all of whom were reduced to sleeping through most of a meandering, dull contest from the bench.

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AP Photo/Tim HalesWhen Steven Gerrard returns from injury he can help settle down the midfield, perhaps in a deeper-lying role.

All told, it was hardly the kind of performance Liverpool should have saved for when the bosses come to town. Though LFC chief John Henry had his hands full trying to appease a Red Sox Nation that's growing increasingly disgruntled with all the time he spends ogling his Euro-sport mistress, it was surprising to see the Reds celebrate part-owner LeBron James' maiden trip to Anfield with such an underwhelming effort. Instead of showing King James the true, exhilarating potential of the Prem, so-called "Best League In The World," Dalglish and Ferguson's sides presented a largely cagey, '90s-era Serie A catenaccio snooze.

Not that LBJ seemed to care much; the NBA star knows well the failure of not winning championships, and judging by his giddy, kid-in-a-candy-store tweeting of every meal, handshake and taxi ride on his overseas voyage, the game itself was but a footnote to the real purpose of his trip: good PR against the backdrop of the lurching NBA lockout. But despite all the swag and goodwill, the Miami Heat star would be forgiven for demanding more of his latest sports business venture.

The fact that the biggest takeaway from the game revolved around yet more Patrice Evra allegations of racism -- this time claiming he was racially abused by Luis Suarez -- is hardly the best advertisement for this storied rivalry. It could have been so different, too, had Sir Alex not once again protected Rooney from 90 minutes of Merseyside madness, like he did in September 2010 when he spared his fiery protege from the mockery of Everton fans after his latest sex hijinks hit the tabloids. Surely, though, Wazza found time to smile at the "Who's the scouser in the wig?" chant that reverberated around Anfield once he entered the game. If only the players had been half as creative.

It's a long season and there will be punches pulled every so often, but surely the tinkering on both sides could have been saved for the Wigans and Wolverhamptons of the league. Any hungover armchair pundit could see how United's second-half switch to a first-team 4-3-3 crowbarred the game wide open, but why were we forced to endure everything that came before? Though Suarez worked manfully and largely without complaint against the hug-happy Rio Ferdinand, whose marking strategy was set to "airport security frisk-down," you can't help but wonder what Andy Carroll would have done with the steady supply from Stewart Downing and Martin Kelly out wide that El Pistolero couldn't handle. And whither Craig Bellamy, a man hardwired for the high drama and madness of derby day? His studly brace for City in its 4-3 loss to United in 2008 showed what his energy and ingenuity are capable of, yet he could only watch as Dirk Kuyt and Jordan Henderson squandered chance after chance to score the game-winner.

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AP Photo/Tim HalesLeBron James took in Anfield before Liverpool and Manchester United kicked off.

That said, even a newbie like LeBron would have been inspired by the return of Steven Gerrard to his badge-kissing, spray-passing pomp, and the ease with which he lent stability to a side that many thought his return would destroy. Sitting between Lucas and Charlie Adam, Stevie G's do-all presence allowed his midfield mates to concentrate on hounding ankles and playing long passes, respectively. It even allowed Adam to indulge in some of the lung-destroying runs that made last season at Blackpool so enjoyable to watch, setting up his captain for the game's set-piece opening goal.

Yeah, so the chubby Scot flopped under minimal pressure from Ferdinand, but kudos must be given to Gerrard's cheeky finish, slotted past a running-for-cover Ryan Giggs to beat David De Gea (who was otherwise superb) at his near post. What was the Welsh winger thinking? No wonder Ian Darke demanded that Fergie "cue the inquest" after the goal, though the commentator should remember that the last time Giggsy likely heard that word, he pushed for a superinjunction.

Overall, the two sides gave us a game that felt as unfinished and unsatisfying as a collapsed souffle, and when the joy on both sides at a point earned finally dissipates, they'll realize that as Manchester City continues to get stronger, there's little pride in settling for second best. Just ask LeBron.

James Tyler is a freelance writer who has worked for ESPN The Magazine.

James Tyler is an ESPN editor for soccer.