Much has changed within the walls of Anfield within the previous twelve months. This match marked the first anniversary of Fenway Sports Groups dramatic, drawn-out and much-heralded bid to take over control of Liverpool FC.
And perhaps the most significant change of all has been the sense of optimism and anticipation which has been instilled within the club. Usurping the doom mongering which had lingered over the club this time last year
Kenny Dalglish suggested as much post-match in his judgement that his players had been left disappointed to have not taken more than a point against the reigning league champions.
This was a match which will hardly go down as a classic in terms of excitement and quality but one which Liverpool dominated for the most part. And yet the Reds had to content themselves with a solitary point; after Javier Hernandez converted one of the few chances Man United were able to create, to cancel out Steven Gerrard’s earlier opener.
The visitors approach was notable for its negativity. Sir Alex Ferguson veered on the side on caution in his decision to omit the likes of Wayne Rooney and Nani from his starting line-up. Instead opting to bolster his midfield and begin with Danny Welbeck as a lone striker.
Liverpool, for their part, also chose to omit Derby goal-scoring hero, Andy Carroll, from their starting line-up. Bringing fully-fit skipper Gerrard into midfield to make his first appearance from the start since March – also against the same opposition
What resulted was a tightly packed midfield contest and a rather subdued first half. Though, it was a midfield battle over which Liverpool were able to dominate.
The only genuine chance of the opening half fell to Luis Suarez. Charlie Adam – who produced arguably his most influential performance in a red shirt to date – drove forward from midfield. And when Adam’s shot from distance was deflected into the path of Suarez, the Uruguayan out-foxed Johnny Evans but his effort was blocked by David De Gea.
Yet, despite their superiority for large swathes of the first period, Liverpool struggled to make that dominance count. Gerrard was instrumental on his return to the starting XI. Immediately providing the Reds with an edge in midfield which had been previously absent this season.
But Suarez too often cut an isolated figure in attack. The Uruguayan’s control and movement caused the centre-back pairing of Evans and Rio Ferdinand no end of concern. Suarez performed admirably against the odds. Yet there seemed a need to commit more men forward to divert attention away from the number 7.
United’s decision to deploy the hard working, if creatively limited, pairing of Phil Jones and Darren Fletcher in midfield spoke volumes. And the only genuine threat to Pepe Reina’s goal came when Jones met a deep cross at the far post but sent his header harmlessly wide, when he probably should have tested Reina.
A contest – which had been dubbed as the biggest in club football by Ferguson pre-match – had flattered to decisive to that point. But belatedly sprung to life after the interval.
Again Liverpool carried the momentum. And the Reds had a good claim for a penalty early in the second half. Dirk Kuyt’s header from a Gerrard corner-kick appeared to strike the arm of Evans. But referee Andre Marriner waved away the protestations.
And the dead-lock was finally broken on 68 minutes. Ferdinand – having received an earlier yellow card for a foul of Suarez – was perhaps lucky to escape without further caution for his trip on Adam, as the Scot surged forward. But the visitors were punished from the resulting free-kick.
Adam left responsibility to his captain. And Gerrard slotted his shot through a weak Man United wall and beyond De Gea. His sixth career goal against United.
Ferguson responded by introducing Rooney, Nani, and Hernandez soon after. And Man United finally sought to take the game to their hosts. And the pressure eventually told on 81 minutes.
A left wing corner was flicked on by Welbeck at the near post. The Liverpool defence failed to deal with the ball and Hernandez stole in to flash a header past Reina from close-range.
Particularly frustrating for Liverpool as this was one the few openings they had allowed their opponents all afternoon.
However, having capitalised United could have gone on to dominate the closing stages. Yet it was Liverpool who laid siege to the Kop end goal mouth and came closest to winning the game on more than one occasion.
De Gea has come under some close scrutiny since his arrival in the Premier League. But it was the young Spaniard whom his team-mates had to thank for ensuring they departed Anfield with their unbeaten record intact.
First, moments after Hernandez’s leveller, Kuyt connected first-time with Stewart Downing’s excellent left-wing cross. Forcing De Gea into a fine save at his near post.
Martin Skrtel snatched at a shot from close range and sent his effort over when virtually any other player on the pitch would surely have shown greater composure.
Then, with the game in its closing moments and a stalemate almost agreed, Jordon Henderson – introduced for the tiring Lucas – very nearly won the game twice.
First, forcing Dea Gea into a save at full stretch from the midfielder’s dipping first time shot. Before Henderson could not quite keep his header low enough from another fine Downing cross, with De Gea this time beaten.
Dalglish and his team were left the more frustrated at the final whistle, considering the circumstances. Liverpool may have failed to close the gap on their bitter rivals to three points. Yet a haul of four points from what are traditionally two of the toughest fixtures of the season is far from a disappointment.
More significantly Dalglish is sure to have garnered some confidence that on this evidence his improving side are at least making some encouraging progress in their pursuit of the teams above them.
Man of the Match
Enrique was excellent again. Whilst Suarez was a constant menace in the final third. Yet it was the return of Gerrard which proved most influential. The skipper rewarded for an all-round display with the opening goal.