For the first hour at Old Trafford, United asserted their superiority over Liverpool in such obvious fashion the visitors looked to be playing their part in a training-ground exercise. A defeat to enforce a depressing reality seemed the only possible outcome.
United's midfield axis of Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley were in complete control. Shinji Kagawa, Danny Welbeck and Ashley Young were working neatly in wide areas, and Robin van Persie was dragging black shirts all over the place.
Liverpool were far, far too deep. Lucas Leiva was given company by Steven Gerrard and Joe Allen in his holding role, while Luis Suarez was more of an issue for United's midfield than he was for the potentially vulnerable Rio Ferdinand in defence.
United took a deserved lead on 19 minutes. It was Van Persie, inevitably, who got the goal—getting in front of Daniel Agger to finish expertly from Patrice Evra's driven cross from the left. It was the Dutchman's ninth goal in nine Premier League games for United. Take in his Arsenal form before joining them, and his run is remarkable.
Robin van Persie has scored 65 goals in 77 Premier League appearances since Jan 2011. He has scored 17 goals in 19 league starts for #mufc— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) January 13, 2013
Young set up Van Persie for another chance soon after, but this time he blazed over. Then came a mistake from the ineffective Allen, which invited Welbeck to run clear and saw Liverpool saved by a brave block from Agger.
United would threaten twice more before the break—Cleverley curling a shot just wide, Van Persie's back-heel cleared off the line in added time.
The teams went in with United 1-0 ahead and Liverpool overwhelmed. Something, anything, had to change, and Brendan Rodgers took his cue by calling on £12 million signing Daniel Sturridge in place of Lucas for the start of the second half.
Sturridge's presence was felt immediately. The 23-year-old gave Liverpool a brighter attacking presence and Suarez some much-needed company. Suarez dropped deeper to accommodate him, and the result will give Liverpool fans plenty to be encouraged about.
The game was changed, but—for now—United remained in the ascendancy. On 55 minutes they scored a deserved second when Evra rose at the back post to head home Van Persie's sweet free-kick. The final touch belonged to Nemanja Vidic, but the Serbian was as oblivious as Liverpool's Glen Johnson, who allowed Evra the freedom of the penalty area.
What happened next will keep Liverpool fans in hope. The visitors reacted by taking the impetus to United and finally gaining some territory in United's half. Liverpool pulled a goal back when David De Gea palmed Gerrard's shot into the path of Sturridge, and a red flare in the stands symbolized a new fire from the visitors.
Liverpool were finally threatening to make this a contest. Sturridge shot over the bar and played in Suarez for another chance. Gerrard and Stewart Downing pushed forward, and Fabio Borini came off the bench to fire a volley wide.
This was the tone Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers will have wanted from kickoff. This Liverpool had Premier League leaders United making nervous mistakes and asking questions of themselves. This Liverpool had belatedly found a way to their confidence.
But it was too little, too late—and Ferguson's United are too good this season to let a team of Liverpool's calibre go away from Old Trafford with anything these days.
The only worrying thing for United was their stuttering finish and the fact it's a rare outing that sees them on top for a whole game these days. Having emphatically bossed the game for an hour, they could still have been denied all three points by Liverpool.
United fans won't worry for long about that. They'll be too busy contemplating the 24 points that separate the two most successful teams in English football.