Brendan Rodgers’ side were left languishing in the bottom three, still without
a league victory, after defeat to their bitter rivals.
The solemnity of the pre-match ceremonies gave way to the Kop’s fury at the officials on the final whistle. You would expect nothing less when Sir Alex Ferguson leaves Anfield clutching three points, especially when there is a perception of one-sidedness in the key decisions.
The refereeing of Mark Halsey was the prime focus after he dismissed Jonjo Shelvey after 39 minutes and awarded a penalty, duly dispatched by Robin van Persie nine minutes from time.
Petulance shall not be denied its day when
After a prolonged period in which United were pitifully poor and Liverpool monopolised possession, Shelvey thrust his boot on to the shin of Jonny Evans and Halsey reduced Liverpool to 10 men.
Perplexingly, Shelvey was granted a standing ovation and felt justified in giving a verbal volley to Ferguson as he departed. He later apologised.
Shelvey has been fortunate in several games this season, needlessly diving in with tackles that have added ferocity as both feet leave the ground. He has been punished lightly for worse offences than Sunday’s. The only debate was whether Evans should have received a red card too for his own arguably reckless challenge. Van Persie was fortunate to escape punishment for a similar tackle on Suso in the second half.
Liverpool’s prospects looked grim when down to 10 men, but their response belied their league placing. At such occasions, you can expect to witness numerous symbolic gestures, so when Steven Gerrard volleyed Liverpool ahead a minute after the break, the afternoon’s most enduring image seemed to have arrived.
Liverpool’s captain was a bereaved relative following Hillsborough. There could have been no more fitting goal-scorer, but the opening goal provoked United into their first meaningful spell of pressure. The influence of Van Persie, Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick had been peripheral. For Nani and Shinji Kagawa, both substituted, it was negligible.
Ferguson sent on Paul Scholes at half-time to repel the domination of Gerrard and Joe Allen, but the equaliser arrived from a surprising source.
Rafael da Silva’s sweet left-footer after 51 minutes clipped the inside of a post, leaving Pepe Reina a helpless observer. It did not instantly create a momentum shift as Luis Suárez twice went close, encouraging Anders Lindegaard to prove his right to be United’s new first choice.
Raheem Sterling and Spanish teenager Suso were leading Liverpool’s Youth Cup charge two years ago, but they took the threat to the visitors as Rodgers refused to allow their inexperience to compromise his belief in their quality.
Whether their inclusion is out of courage or necessity – probably both – there is always a price to be paid from expecting so much, so soon of teenagers, who will make mistakes in the most punishing glare.
It was Suso’s wayward pass leaving Daniel Agger trying to trick his way out of trouble, colliding with Glen Johnson and enabling Antonio Valencia to make the 40-yard dash into Liverpool’s penalty box, which led to the winner. Valencia may have tripped over himself as much as feeling a push from Johnson, but for all the wrath directed at Halsey, Liverpool’s complicity in their own downfall could not be ignored.
It seems Liverpool have to work much harder to score than their opponents, who are consistently benefiting from basic errors.
For Rodgers, there was again much to admire beyond the result, but he needs to banish hard-luck tales. When it is suggested he needs time, it should not be stated flippantly as a few months, or even a season, but for as long as it takes to build a side full of his own signings. Allen, for example, already looks the heir apparent when Gerrard gives up the captain’s armband.
The gap between Liverpool and United, however, is more than the 10 points that separate them a mere five games into the campaign.
United again underlined their capacity to succeed at the most daunting of venues when several gears below full pelt. Where Liverpool possess some eloquence across the pitch, United have ruthlessness and the ability to find goals from any position. That is why Ferguson departed Merseyside having extended United’s run as the most successful away team at Anfield in Premier League history.
Rodgers, after the club’s worst start in 101 years, needs to find a winning formula to ensure United fans’ relegation taunts are quickly banished.
Liverpool (4-3-3): Reina; Kelly, Agger (Carragher 80), Skrtel, Johnson,
Allen, Gerrard, Shelvey; Borini 4 (Suso half-time), Suarez, Sterling
Subs (not used): Jones, Enrique, Sahin, Assaidi.
Sent off: Shelvey.
Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Lindegaard; Rafael (Welbeck 89), Evans, Ferdinand, Evra; Carrick, Giggs, Valencia, Nani 4 (Scholes half-time); Kagawa 4 (Hernandez 81); van Persie.
Subs (not used): De Gea, Anderson, Cleverley, Buttner.