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Sep 23, 2012

Reds fall short on emotional day

All things considered, Manchester United represented worst possible visitors to Anfield on such an emotional occasion. Not the club, who behaved with immaculate dignity, but the players, who pilfered three points their display did not deserve, and some supporters, who put a sizeable dent in their reputation, particularly when provoked by a moronic minority at Anfield.

Liverpool's afternoon began beautifully and ended awfully. At a club where the past is ever present, they arrived with thoughts of 1989 and contrived to provoke mentions of 1911; a 101-year retreat through history is required to find a campaign when their opening five games only produced two points. It is a meagre reward for performances that could have brought rather more. "The best team lost," said Brendan Rodgers, unhappy about a trio of refereeing decisions as well as the outcome.

It was a day that began with consensus and ended with controversy. When unity takes over from enmity, when respect replaces rancour, such moments are to be savoured. They are too brief, too fleeting and too quickly banished to history, not least by the actions of the unpleasant.

As the Liverpool public paid tribute to the victims of the Hillsborough disaster on the first home game after an independent panel exonerated them of blame, it was an occasion when Anfield had the feel of a cathedral; where quiet contemplation gives way to communal singing and "You'll Never Walk Alone" is more hymn than number from a musical.

Both sides emerged in tracksuits with the number 96 on the back; it was displayed in a mosaic at the Anfield Road End, too, while the Kop's message was "the truth" and the Centenary Stand proclaimed "Justice." "Liverpool did a fantastic job," said Sir Alex Ferguson, a rival turned admirer.

The United hierarchy ensured they contributed too. Captains Steven Gerrard and Ryan Giggs released 96 balloons into the Merseyside sky. There was something symbolic, too, in the way Sir Bobby Charlton presented Ian Rush with flowers; legends each and the respective clubs' record goalscorers but men who were present at the twin tragedies that have forged Liverpool and United's identities. Rush is a reminder of Hillsborough, Charlton a survivor of Munich.

Sadly, the 1958 Air Disaster came to mind for other reasons. Barely a dozen minutes had gone by when some of the United supporters, in a needless attempt to goad their Liverpool counterparts, chorused: "Where's your famous Munich song?" Thankfully it went unanswered but after the final whistle, a couple of Liverpool supporters raced towards the United end, arms outstretched to mimic aeroplanes and the travelling Mancunians responded, unacceptably, with a chant of "murderers" and revived one of their more provocative chants: "Always the victim, never your fault."

Claim and counter claim will probably follow but the reality is that both clubs, more than almost any other, should know the true meaning of tragedy. Certainly Liverpool's captain does: Gerrard's 10-year-old cousin Jon-Paul Gilhooley was the youngest of those who never returned from Hillsborough.

It is a reason why Gerrard's importance extends beyond the facts of games and goals, or even the heroics of Istanbul and Cardiff, and why he was a fitting scorer, volleying in before a cathartic celebration at the Kop End.

It was a goal that owed something to a foray on the left flank by Suso, the teenage debutant in the first minute of his league career, and came against the odds: Liverpool were already reduced to 10 men following Jonjo Shelvey's reckless challenge on Jonny Evans. The midfielder made a combustible exit, shouting at Ferguson, and prompting Rodgers to say: "If Jonjo Shelvey gets sent off, Jonny Evans has to get sent off as well."

Nor was it his only issue with his fellow Northern Irishman. Rodgers felt a tackle by Evans on Luis Suarez should have resulted in a penalty. Instead, the only spot-kick Mark Halsey awarded went United's way. Like both of their goals, Antonio Valencia played a pivotal part. His cross was chested down by Shinji Kagawa for Rafael da Silva to score the first superbly. The second came when Valencia surged 50 yards before going to ground under a Glen Johnson challenge. "Never a penalty," Rodgers said. United had a hat-trick of misses from 12 yards in their three previous games. There was no fourth, Robin van Persie drilling his spot kick past Pepe Reina.

"We are pleased with the result, but not the performance," Ferguson said. "I thought we were poor." In this, as in much else, Liverpool are their opposites. "We dominated the majority of the game, even with 10 men," Rodgers said. Indeed, Gerrard and Joe Allen excelled in midfield, providing a platform to play; Suso matched Raheem Sterling for precocious vim and vigour; the side performed with a spirit that was undimmed by the loss of Shelvey.

Yet unproductive excellence must be a worrying theme. Five games, three with fine displays, have only yielded two draws. With a shortage of strikers, chances go unconverted and pressure is not converted into points. They find themselves in the relegation zone, having done much right without being rewarded.

"Liverpool set the right tone," said Ferguson, impressed with events before kick-off. "There was total respect. Hopefully that is a line in the sand. Then rivalry will always be there but it has gone beyond the pale. It has been a good day for football."

He, like Rodgers, had retreated inside before the post-match problems. Once again, the line in the sand has been crossed.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Steven Gerrard. Terrific. The Liverpool captain has responded superbly to being moved into a deeper role for the last two league games. His partnership with Allen is promising with Gerrard supplying the power to dovetail with the Welshman's passing.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Rodgers' faith in youth was clear with Suso preferred to Stewart Downing on the bench and then sent on with the side down to 10 men. The concern is that Liverpool are too reliant on ingénues. Fabio Borini went off with a badly-bruised ankle and, if he is sidelined, Rodgers will be down to one senior striker in Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan was his usual self: causing defenders problem after problem but without applying a finishing touch.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Winning without performing; it is a fortunate problem to have. United have 12 points this season, nine of them secured from losing positions. This was a third comeback of the campaign. Yet identifying anyone who actually played particularly well is difficult, though Anders Lindegaard justified his selection ahead of David de Gea and Valencia was involved in two goals. "[Paul] Scholes', [Michael] Carrick's and [Ryan] Giggs' experience got us through," Ferguson said. Nemanja Vidic was an unexpected absentee with the Scot saying: "He felt tight about his knee."

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