A match that started so well with Fernando Torres’ opener on five minutes ended like much of this season, in defeat and disappointment.
After Torres’ superb header from Kuyt’s cross after good play by Gerrard in the middle, it wasn’t until the 88th minute that Rafa Benitez’s side registered another shot on target – when Torres miss-cued and Benayoun’s weak header went into van der Sar’s hands.
In the meantime, United had gone from 1 down to 2 ahead.
Javier Mascherano’s pulling of Antonio Valencia’s shirt, bringing the United midfielder down on the edge of the box, proved the turning point. The initial foul was actually outside the box but Valencia fell inside and Howard Webb was always going to point to the spot. Fortunately he didn’t reach for a red card and give the Argentine what would have been his third dismissal in this fixture in the last three seasons.
Pepe Reina expertly saved the resulting spot-kick, but the ball fell kindly for Rooney and followed it up for 1-1.
If the first half had been level on play and on chances, the second half saw United dominate. Fletcher become more involved in the midfield and Liverpool‘s weakness in Emiliano Insua at left back was exploited with Valencia giving him problems.
It was from a cross down Liverpool‘s left that the winner arrived. Fletcher putting in a pin-point cross after a dummy run distracted Insua and Ji Sung Park drifted in between Johnson and Carragher 6 yards out to plant a diving header past Pepe Reina.
Rafa made attacking subs with Aquilani, Babel and Benayoun coming on and Liverpool pressed patiently for an equaliser. Torres had one half-chance which he failed to connect with, then in the dying minutes a perfect opportunity presented itself after good work down the Reds right but the Torres’ first touch couldn’t get the ball under control and his second poked it into the air, Benayoun got his head to it but his shot lacked power and was never threatening van der Sar.
Torres’ frustrations boiled over once again, reacting angrily to the spot-kick, and picking up his fifth booking in his last seven matches.
The result means ten league defeats this season, and with Spurs and Man City both winning this weekend, pushes Liverpool further behind in the race for fourth place. United meanwhile moved top and closer to their 19th title.
Man Utd: Van der Sar, Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Valencia, Fletcher, Carrick, Park (Scholes, 87), Nani (Giggs, 79), Rooney.
Unused Subs: Kuszczak, Berbatov, Rafael Da Silva, Jonathan Evans, Obertan.
Goal: Torres (5)
Liverpool: Reina, Johnson, Carragher, Agger, Insua, Mascherano, Lucas (Benayoun 83), Kuyt (Aquilani 73), Gerrard, Maxi (Babel 76), Torres.
Unused Subs: Cavalieri, Kyrgiakos, Ngog, Kelly.
Goals: Rooney (12), Park (60)
Referee: Howard Webb