Liverpool 2 - 0 Manchester United
The Manchester United fans brought the Eric Cantona face masks. They brought the goading banners. They brought the beach balls. Someone forgot to bring the team.
The vultures were circling over Anfield. Merseyside had endured a torrid week in Europe. Liverpool’s season was spiraling out of control and the possibility of a fourth consecutive defeat was intolerable.
If there was ever a perfect opportunity for United to conquer Anfield, Sunday was it.
The United fans were baying for blood.
Rafa Benitez was without his inspirational captain, Steven Gerrard. The Kop was provided with some solace with the return of Fernando Torres and Glen Johnson to the starting line-up.
Meanwhile, Ferguson had to make do without the injured Darren Fletcher, whose biting presence was missed in midfield. Instead, Scholes partnered Carrick in the centre of the park while Valencia and Giggs provided the width.
The ingredients for an electric encounter between the two rivals were present: nothing less than three points would be sufficient for the home side; and the Red Devils eager to overtake Chelsea at the summit of the league, while the return of Owen to the temple where he was once worshipped ensured that there would be a high-octane atmosphere.
In truth, Manchester United were never afforded time to settle by a robust and ruthless Liverpool unit. The home side were back to their robotic best.
Yossi Benayoun replaced Gerrard in the hole behind Torres and produced some deft touches and neat passes as he looked to unlock the sturdy defensive duo of Ferdinand and Vidic at every available opportunity.
Lucas has been subjected to much criticism as a cloud of depression descended over Anfield. Yet he was ever-present throughout the 90 minutes, winning 50-50’s, helping to build attacks and even make the odd foray into towards Van Der Saar’s goal.
His detractors have been silenced, if only temporarily.
The game sparked into life on 15 minutes. Patrice Evra felled Torres on the edge of the area. It afforded Aurelio the opportunity to have a sight on goal.
He looked to create a carbon copy of that spectacular free kick at Old Trafford last March. The Brazilian's curling effort was clawed away, thanks to a superb save by United’s No. 1.
Minutes later, Liverpool were on the attack again.
Lucas stole the ball from Scholes and his well-timed pass found Kuyt. The striker strode into the box but tamely rolled his effort across the goal. It was a disappointing attempt but nevertheless the chance injected confidence which flowed through the veins of the players in red.
United escaped unscathed from these two scares and promptly regrouped. The midfield became condensed, with both sides surrendering possession easily and conceding reckless fouls.
The battle between Valencia and Insua began to heat up. The Ecuadoran played a crucial role in the away side's best opening in a first half in which Rooney and Berbatov were given scant scope to make an impact on the game.
Valencia managed to dig a cross out. It was met by the airborne Rooney, but his header was tame and it was easily gathered by Reina.
At the other end, Aurelio also came close with his head. He nodded Benayoun’s cross earthwards, but van der Sar was on hand to scoop the ball into his chest.
Ryan Giggs was shoved to the ground within Reina’s area shortly before half time. The referee Andre Mariner waved for play to continue. When he called an end to the first half, he was escorted off the pitch by a discontent Giggs and an exasperated Carragher.
Whatever words Benitez instilled upon his team in the dressing room had the desired effect as the teams resurfaced to kick off for the second period. Even in the stand, the seated Steven Gerrard was kicking every ball.
Within four minutes, the United defence was carved open with only the tentativeness of Kuyt spoiling a sweeping move.
Benayoun and Torres exchanged a smart one-two to dispatch Kuyt clean through on goal. The Dutch dynamo unleashed a strike on goal, instead opting to square the ball back to Benayoun. Vidic put the brakes on an elegant move.
Vidic clearly had unfinished business with Torres. The ghosts of last March still loom large.
The Serbian clattered the Spanish striker several times, finally receiving a yellow card for his untidy defending. However, his rough tactic was proving fruitful, as he prevented Torres from terrorising the away defence.
That was until the 65th minute.
Benayoun disassembled the opposition rearguard with a deft ball which gave Torres his first clear run on goal. Liverpool’s No. 9 shrugged off the attentions from Ferdinand and subsequently sent a scorching shot past Van der Sar to send the Liverpool owners, players, and fans into bedlam.
Benitez remained eternally emotionless.
Ryan Giggs tried to conjure up a bit of magic with his divine left foot. He fizzed in some dangerous set pieces, but Carragher and Agger dug deep and managed to clear the barrage of crosses.
With the game finely balanced, Ferguson decided to play his wild card. It was the moment the home supporters had been anticipating for 70-odd minutes.
Inevitably, the introduction of Michael Owen was greeted with a hostile chorus of jeers. Chants of “Judas” reverberated around the four corners of Anfield with the Kop acting as choir master.
Meanwhile, the new darling of the Kop, Fernando Torres, was substituted amid rapturous applause with David N’Gog coming on as his replacement.
Valencia came closest for United with seven minutes remaining. His thunderous attempt smashed off the cross bar and to safety, much to the relief of Reina.
It was written in the stars that Owen would leave some sort of mark on the affair.
Rooney, who had been largely anonymous, played a disguised ball into space for Owen to run onto.
Carragher hauled his former team-mate to the ground. The away party cried for an straight red but the referee settled on a yellow card. Ferguson was enraged.
It provided one of the main talking points of the game.
Vidic and Mascherano both received second cautions and were dismissed as the game drew to the close. Vidic was penalised for tugging Kuyt to the turf in a foul not dissimilar to Carragher’s earlier cynical foul.
The 10 men of United pushed for an equaliser invariably leaving their defence exposed to counter attacks from the home side.
In the fifth minute of added time, Liverpool wrapped the game up. Two crunching tackles, first from Agger and then Carragher, saw another away attack come to an abrupt halt.
Kuyt played a sharp pass to Lucas, who strode to into the visitor’s half. He slotted the ball to N’Gog and the French striker calmly stoked the ball to the right of Van Der Saar and ensured that the turmoil at Anfield was quelled for the time being.
Liverpool: Pepe Reina, Glen Johnson, Jamie Carragher, Daniel Agger, Emiliano Insua, Lucas Leiva, Javier Mascherano, Fabio Aurelio, Dirk Kuyt, Yossi Benayoun, Fernando Torres.
Manchester United: Edwin Van Der Saar, John O’Shea, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Antonio Valencia, Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs, Dimitar Berbatov, Wayne Rooney.
Man of the Match: Jamie Carragher