Robin van Persie’s late penalty fired Manchester United past the ten men of Liverpool on an emotional afternoon at Anfield—which did not pass without more than its fair share of talking points.
Despite Jonjo Shelvey’s first half red card, United’s lacklustre display looked likely to be punished when Steven Gerrard volleyed Liverpool ahead a minute after the half-time break.
However, minutes later, Rafael equalised with a wonderful curled strike, before van Persie converted a penalty ten minutes from time, to leave Liverpool winless and still in the relegation zone, after Glen Johnson’s foul on Antonio Valencia.
Before kick-off, Anfield rose as one to remember the 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster, with both sets of fans showing the respect repeatedly requested in the build up to the game.
The occasion also saw the apparent end to the ongoing feud between Patrice Evra and Luis Suarez, who was banned for eight games last season for racially abusing the Frenchman, as the two participated in the pre-match handshake, in contrast to last year, when the Uruguayan refused to shake Evra’s hand.
United ambassador Sir Bobby Charlton, and captain, Ryan Giggs, both engaged in pre-match gestures along with their Liverpool counterparts, with the Anfield faithful engaging in a rousing rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, before the compelling encounter between the two bitter rivals began.
Liverpool started the brighter team and continued to control the game for the entire half, but were unable to fashion any clear opportunities with Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans standing firm, in the absence of captain Nemanja Vidic.
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Steven Gerrard came closest to opening the scoring, driving a low shot into the side-netting from a well-worked corner, but they continued to dominate possession and territory, with their rivals unable to keep the ball for any significant period of time.
Van Persie looked an isolated figure as the lone striker, while Shinji Kagawa, Antonio Valencia, and Nani all struggled to involve themselves in proceedings, with the latter seemingly gifting his opponents possession whenever he had the ball.
However, the momentum seemed to shift in United’s favour when Mark Halsey dismissed Shelvey for a reckless lunge on Evans.
Both men contested the loose ball with studs raised, but it was Evans who won the ball, while Shelvey’s studs found a home just beneath the Irishman’s knee, and the youngster failed to help himself when he decided to engage Sir Alex Ferguson in a verbal exchange as he left the pitch.
Most expected United to come out firing following a blast from their manager’s famous half-time “hairdryer”, but Liverpool again started brightly, and were rewarded just seconds after the break.
Substitute Suso and Johnson combined down the left, and Paul Scholes’ first contribution to the match was to indirectly stab the ball towards Gerrard, who took the ball on the chest, and fired a left-foot volley low past Anders Lindegaard.
Gerrard, who lost a cousin at Hillsborough, celebrated by kissing his badge and pointing to the heavens in front of the overjoyed Kop, but their elation was cut short when Valencia’s cross was chested into the path of Rafael by Kagawa, and the Brazilian full-back curled a delightful left footed finish past the helpless Pepe Reina.
Again, Liverpool pressed for the winner, with the Manchester side unable to gain any sort of foothold in the game, and the Kop felt further aggrieved when Suarez fell in the box under a challenge from Evans, before the dangerous Sterling fell immediately after in a challenge with Scholes.
Although Suarez’s theatrical tumble did little to help his case, the replays later proved that both United players won the ball.
Liverpool’s dominance continued, with Lindegaard called into action again to save a low strike from the lively Suarez, and then a powerful Suso drive, with the home team showing no signs that they were a man light.
However, when Valencia beat Johnson and Daniel Agger to the ball on the halfway line, with the two defenders colliding together, United were gifted an opportunity to take the lead from the penalty spot, as Johnson rushed back only to foul the winger as he was set to shoot.
Van Persie had to wait to take his spot-kick, as Agger was stretchered from the field with possible ankle ligament damage, but the striker finally found the top corner of the net, with Reina unable to keep the powerful penalty out despite getting a strong hand to the Dutchman’s strike.
With the United fans in full voice, Mark Halsey continued to be the villain of the piece in the eyes of the home supporters, when he booked Van Persie for a hard challenge on Suso, despite the Kop, and the ever-animated Suarez, pleading for tougher punishment.
Liverpool continued to search for an equaliser, with Martin Kelly heading wide, before he too was helped from the field with a knee injury, but it was all in vain as their rivals held on through eight minutes of injury time to take a precious, albeit undeserved, three points back to Old Trafford.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s team were, again, nowhere near their best, but their ruthless finishing allowed them to spoil an emotional day at Anfield.
Brendan Rodgers, meanwhile, was left bemoaning the red card and penalty decision, with his team left in the relegation zone, without a win in their first five league games.
Despite the poor performance, United were able to grab a first win in six visits to Anfield, while Liverpool were again unable to convert their chances. However, United fans will be delighted to take the three points away from a difficult encounter with their rivals, as they continue their assault to reclaim the title.
Liverpool: Reina (6), Johnson (6), Agger (7), Skrtel (7), Kelly (7), Allen (7), Gerrard (8), Shelvey (5), Sterling (7), Borini (5), Suarez (6). Subs: Suso (7), Henderson (5), Carragher (n/a).
Manchester United: Lindegaard (7), Rafael (8), Ferdinand (7), Evans (7), Evra (6), Valencia (6), Giggs (6), Carrick (6), Nani (3), Kagawa (5), Van Persie (5). Subs: Scholes (7), Hernandez (n/a), Welbeck (n/a).
Referee: Mark Halsey (7) – Despite the criticism, replays suggest he got every key decision correct, although the debate surrounding each decision suggests a general consensus will be difficult to achieve.