Daniel Sturridge, celebrating his 24th birthday, scored the only goal of a game that spoke much about one club’s optimistic future and another’s uncertain status at the top of the English game.
Bill Shankly, the late, great manager who put Liverpool firmly on the world football map during his tenure at Anfield, would have been 100 years old today and while Brendan Rodgers can only dream of lifting the club back to such dizzying heights, this performance and result proved he is heading very firmly in the right direction.
“This is another step for us,” said Rodgers. “Since we last played Man United in January, we had both played 18 games and there was only two points difference… and they went on to become champions.
“That winning mentality is becoming stronger. You could see the reaction and the togetherness of the team was very good but we won’t be getting carried away.
“The initial challenge this year is to try and get into the top four and be in the conversation for that for as long as we can. I don’t think we can look beyond that for a long time yet.”
Sturridge scored after three minutes from a corner needlessly conceded by Ashley Young’s error. Steven Gerrard sent over a right-wing flag kick which Daniel Agger, having lost his marker Rio Ferdinand all too easily, steered goalwards for Sturridge to glance in with a precise, six-yard header.
The goal electrified a fixture which seldom needs any higher voltage being fed through it and drew plaudits from the Liverpool manager.
“I’m delighted with his application, especially as we didn’t think he would be fit today,” said Rodgers. “He played a full game and extra-time [against Notts County] in midweek and had a slight knock on his thigh.
“We told him put yourself out there because even at 70%, you’ll be as good or better than a lot of Premier League strikers. You’ve got to find the desire to push yourself and he did that today and got his reward.”
For United and new manager David Moyes the goal, and the remainder of the game that followed, were a sobering exercise in the vast improvements still needed by the defending champions.
Wayne Rooney missed the return to his native Merseyside, the result of an accidental clash with Phil Jones on the training ground on Saturday, and he surely would have added some badly-needed energy, power and guile to United’s play. But the broader answer for United and Moyes lies, surely, in the hours that remain in the current transfer window and what answers the manager can produce in an attempt to bolster a squad that is alarmingly short on quality and depth, particularly in midfield.
They might have made an immediate response to going behind at Anfield as Robin van Persie sent an overhead kick just over the bar from a Patrice Evra header but it was a rare first-half attack from a United side that struggled to cope with Liverpool’s enthusiasm, fitness and aggressive, pressing game.
As Liverpool kept United penned in their own half, frequently turning defence into attack, United’s growing frustration was summed up in the closing stages of the opening period when three of their players — Tom Cleverley, Michael Carrick and van Persie — were booked for petulant trips.
Iago Aspas headed over Gerrard’s free-kick from Liverpool’s first attack of the second half but, having been forced to bring on Antonio Valencia for the injured Phil Jones late in the first half and switching from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1, United finally started to show a sense of urgency.
Van Persie and Young had efforts blocked, Welbeck and the United bench appealed for a penalty after slight contact with Aspas in the area and Ryan Giggs glanced a corner from substitute Nani directly into the arms of Simon Mignolet.
Nani forced Mignolet into his first serious save of note, after 76 minutes, with a powerful strike that he punched clear and substitute Javier Hernandez also found the Liverpool keeper alert when his snap shot before van Persie wasted United’s last — possibly — best sight of an equaliser after 87 minutes.
LIVERPOOL (4-2-3-1): Mignolet 7; Johnson 7 (Wisdom 78, 7), Skrtel 9, Agger 8, Jose Enrique 7; Gerrard 7, Lucas 7; Henderson 7, Aspas 6 (Sterling 60, 8), Coutinho 7 (Alberto 83); Sturridge 8.
Subs: Brad Jones, Ibe, Kelly, Flanagan.
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-4-2): De Gea 7, Jones 6 (Valencia 37, 6), Ferdinand 5, Vidic 6, Evra 5, Carrick 6, Cleverley 5, Young 4 (Nani 62, 7), Giggs 5 (Hernandez 73, 6), Welbeck 5, van Persie 6.
Subs: Anderson, Smalling, Lindegaard, Buttner.
Referee: Andre Marriner 6