Manchester United 3 Liverpool 2
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer tried his utmost to cope without Bruno Fernandes but, in the week that the peerless Portuguese playmaker brings up his one-year anniversary at Old Trafford, he should have known better.
The Manchester United manager handed Donny van de Beek a rare start, ahead of Bruno who was offered some much-needed rest, but with this thrilling tie heading towards extra-time, Solskjaer knew he had no choice.
Bruno was brought on and, when Fabinho was harshly judged to have fouled Edinson Cavani on the edge of the Liverpool area after 78 minutes, there was an air of inevitability over what was to follow.
The Portuguese star, signed from Sporting Lisbon for £47 million almost exactly one year ago, curled the dead ball around the wall, with Paul Pogba intelligently ducking out of the way to ensure it nestled into the far corner.
“Great goal, good free-kick,” said Solskjaer. “The thing is, when I leave him out like I had to do this time, he stayed 45 minutes after training yesterday just taking free-kicks.
“So I was quite confident he would hit the target. He’s never happy when I tell him to go inside after training, like I do when he’s playing the next day, so this week he had time to practise free-kicks!”
That extra training was time well spent and what a finale to a tie that was the polar opposite of last week’s cagey goalless league draw between these giants.
United will face former manager David Moyes and West Ham in the fifth round as Solskjaer continues his increasingly impressive attempts to win a first trophy in charge at United. But it was a magnificently close-run thing.
“I’m very excited about what’s happening here,” said Bruno. “This is everything, a dream come true to play for this big club and play in the Premier League.
“It keeps being a dream come true and everyone knows the importance of beating Liverpool. I know the fans are going to have a good week.”
This was a thrilling ride, edge of the seat stuff in which Bruno will grab the headlines — as he should given the impact his 28 goals in 51 games for United have had — but some other illustrious names deserved huge credit.
United pair Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford certainly looked back to their devastating best but, for Jurgen Klopp, there was the considerable consolation of seeing Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino put their recent woes behind them.
The Egyptian struck after 18 minutes, assisted superbly, and inevitably, by Firmino in a sure sign that reports of their demise have been greatly exaggerated.
It was a vintage Liverpool goal as United’s midfield inexplicably allowed Georginio Wijnaldum space just inside the United half and his pass found Firmino.
The Brazilian had plenty to do it, and did it without hesitation, threading a pass between Victor Lindelof and Luke Shaw for Salah to collect and lob the ball over the advancing Dean Henderson.
But Liverpool currently have problems all over the field and it took just 10 minutes for them to be exposed by a United side on the crest of a wave.
United had struggled to cope with Liverpool’s press but with Rashford and Shaw looking increasingly threatening on the counter, a 26th-minute equaliser was hardly unexpected.
It came from a thundering Pogba tackle on Firmino on the edge of the United box, a pass from van de Beek and Rashford moving threateningly down the left and into the Liverpool half.
The pass that followed was breathtaking, floating millimetres over the head of James Milner for Greenwood to stride onto and beat Alisson with an unflinching finish that, as was the case with Salah, made a mockery of his recent goalless run.
There could have been more from the hosts, especially when Rashford played in van de Beek and when Shaw picked out Pogba and Scott McTominay from brilliant corners.
Eventually, Rashford struck three minutes into the second half, as he and Greenwood swapped. This time, it was Greenwood who provided it with a well-timed pass which, still, should have been intercepted by young Liverpool centre-half Rhys Williams.
Instead, the defender could only flick the ball into the path of Rashford who sped away from his chasers and beat Alisson with a no-nonsense finish that gave United their first lead of the evening.
It was the England striker’s first goal in seven outings, Greenwood had snatched his first in 11 but on a night of striker resurrections, Salah was not finished.
After 58 minutes, United could not cope with Liverpool’s press, Milner robbed Cavani, passed to Firmino and his lethal pass picked out an unmarked Salah who swept home without hesitation from 12 yards.
Milner had just missed a glorious opening seconds before and Liverpool were very much in the ascendancy, until Bruno’s intervention.
There could have been more goals after the fifth and if any game deserved more twists and turns, it was this one. But United, not Liverpool, came closest to a sixth goal, with Cavani heading against the foot of the post.
“We can take things out of this game, we try to learn from every game,” said Klopp. “It’s good for Mo, good for the confidence. We want it hard but tonight it was not enough.
“If you win a game there are negatives, if you lose a game too but I saw the boys really, really wanted it. It was intense, but there were positives.”
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-2-3-1): Henderson 7; Wan-Bissaka 6, Lindelof 5, Maguire 7, Shaw 7; Pogba 8, McTominay 5; Greenwood 7 (Fred 66, 7), van de Beek 5 (Fernandes 66, 8), Rashford 9 (Martial 86); Cavani 6.
Subs not used: De Gea, Mata, James, Telles, Matic, Tuanzebe.
LIVERPOOL (4-3-3): Alisson 7; Alexander-Arnold 7, R Williams 5, Fabinho 6, Robertson 6; Milner 6, Thiago 7 (Shaqiri 81), Wijnaldum 6 (Mane 62, 6); Salah 8, Firmino 9 (Origi 81), Jones 7.
Subs not used: Oxlade-Chamberlain, Minamino, Tsimikas, Phillips, Kelleher, N Williams.
Referee: C Pawson 7