The Kop sang Brendan Rodgers’ name in the closing stages but the final tribute of an emotional afternoon at Anfield came in sympathy and not a victory salute. Liverpool‘s wait for a Premier League win goes on, the torment inflicted here by referee Mark Halsey’s decision to dismiss Jonjo Shelvey and to award a crucial late penalty converted by Robin van Persie. It was Manchester United‘s first successful spot-kick in four attempts this season and a fortunate reprieve.
A commemoration to the victims of Hillsborough and their families was impeccably observed by everyone inside Anfield. Luis SuÃ¡rez shook hands with Patrice Evra and the focus of too much pre-match concern was over without incident, which made it all the more ridiculous that the controversy should erupt on the pitch. From a Liverpool perspective, it was also completely unnecessary.
Liverpool dominated the first half thanks in the main to the prodigious pressing and work-rate of Steven Gerrard and Joe Allen in central midfield, SuÃ¡rez up front and an intelligent display on the right wing by 17-year-old Raheem Sterling. By contrast, United were slow to the ball and sloppy in possession, with Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick anonymous and Nani a liability out on the left.
Six minutes before the interval Shelvey offered United a way back with a dangerous challenge on Jonny Evans. Committed to a 50-50 after the ball had run free from Shelvey’s challenge on Giggs, the Liverpool midfielder and United defender both went in with two feet. Evans kept his on the floor and won the ball. Shelvey went over the top with one foot and did not. Red, according to Halsey, and as he left the field the Liverpool player was involved in an angry exchange with Sir Alex Ferguson.
Liverpool continued to press with 10 men and it was no less than they deserved when Gerrard put them ahead a minute after the restart when United failed to clear a left-wing cross from the substitute Suso. Gerrard, who lost a cousin at Hillsborough, pointed to the sky in celebration but the lead lasted five minutes before Antonio Valencia and Shinji Kagawa combined for Rafael da Silva to curl an exquisite left-foot shot in off the far post.
Halsey correctly ignored Liverpool penalty appeals after challenges by Evans and Paul Scholes on SuÃ¡rez and Sterling respectively but awarded United a soft one with 14 minutes remaining when Johnson was adjudged to have caught Valencia. Despite the best efforts of JosÃ© Reina, and following a lengthy delay as Daniel Agger was taken off on a stretcher, Van Persie drove home the spot-kick. United’s penalty misery was over. Rodgers’ misfortune prolonged.