Much had been said before kick off about United fans’ response to Liverpool’s tribute to the victims of the Hillsborough tragedy, in the Merseyside club’s first home game since the release of the Hillsborough report.
United fans were quick to dismiss fear of sick and vile chanting, following Sir Alex Ferguson’s appeal during the week.
Sir Bobby Charlton handed a bouquet of red roses to Liverpool legend Ian Rush, before the home fans unveiled a mosaic reading “Justice” and “The truth” which covered three sides of the ground and both teams lined up with specially made tracktops bearing the number 96 on their backs.
The away fans joined in the applause for the victims before belting out chants of “United, United” as the home crowd paid a fitting tribute to the 96 victims and their families with a rendition of You’ll never walk alone.
The much dreaded hatred was nowhere to be seen, at least not to the extent the press had worried (hoped?) for over the last 10 days.
United, without a win in the last five games in all competitions at Anfield, fielded Lindegaard in goal, with a back four including Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans and Patrice Evra, as captain Nemanja Vidic surprisingly missed out.
Fergie opted for Valencia and Nani on the flanks with Carrick and Giggs – who captained the side,despite Evra’s presence in the starting XI – in the middle of the park, despite United’s woeful record at Anfield in recent seasons. Kagawa was chosen to support Van Persie up front.
Ferguson had worried before the game that his side might suffer the occasion, and United certainly looked shaken as Liverpool went close to open the scoring twice within two minutes.
First, Suarez forced a good save from Lindegaard after getting ahead of Ferdinand, then Shelvey pulled a corner back for Gerrard, whose shot hit the side-netting.
United were simply not at the races, wasteful and scared in possession as Nani and Giggs in particular were guilty of vaguely hoofing the ball towards Robin Van Persie, rather than patiently build an with real attacking purpose.
The Dutchman was left too isolated up front as Liverpool showed more hunger and drive and United seemed happy to nurse their way to half-time.
With less than 10 minutes to go in ten first half, JonJo Shelvey recklessly launched into a challenge against Jonny Evans and while both players weren’t in control going into the tackle, referee Mark Halsey was right to send the Liverpool player off.
For a side that had demanded respect, Shelvey’s reaction at being sent off was surely petty and nothing short of disgraceful as he pointed his finger towards Sir Alex Ferguson, who dismissed him with a grin.
United would have considered themselves lucky to go back to the dressing room at half time with the score still locked at 0-0, and re-emerged with Scholes replacing an evanescent Nani as Sir Alex tried to exploit United’s numerical superiority in midfield.
With less than sixty seconds on the clock, though, Liverpool were in front as Scholes intercepted Glen Johnson’s run, only for the ball to fall into Steven Gerrard’s path. The Liverpool captain was awarded acres of space to chest the ball down and fire home in front of the Kop.
United found themselves deservedly behind but were sprung into life by the goal.
Less than five minutes later, Valencia’s cross was chested down by Kagawa and drilled home with a magnificent left footed curler by Rafael that stunned Anfield and had the United end berserk.
Despite their numerical inferiority, Liverpool kept pouring forward and twice went close to regain the lead.
Suarez unleashed a left-footed effort from outside the box, forcing a smart, one-handed same from Lindegaard, before finding Suso whose shot was expertly palmed over the bar by the United keeper.
Despite their numerical superiority United couldn’t seem to grasp the match by its scruff until the 76th minute, when Valencia broke free after intercepting a pass on the halfway line and was brought down by Glen Johnson inside the box.
Ref Mark Halsey quickly pointed at the spot and, despite a long wait due to Daniel Agger’s injury, Robin Van Persie made no mistake, firing United to their first win at Anfield since December 2007.
Hernandez then replaced Kagawa and, despite five minutes of added time, which turned into seven following Martin Kelly's injury and Danny Welbeck's introduction, Liverpool couldn't muster a fightback and United fans left their bitterest neighbours' turf with three points. A poor performance perhaps, but three points in the bag, nevertheless.