On a normal day, the sight of Wayne Rooney scoring twice against Liverpool to send Manchester United to the Premier League summit would make all the headlines. But, this was no normal meeting between English football’s two most successful clubs. Instead, all the headlines were made before the game.
In October, United captain Patrice Evra claimed Liverpool striker Luis Suarez had racially abused him. A subsequent FA inquiry agreed and despite the pleas of innocence from the Uruguayan and all at Anfield, an 8-game ban was enforced. After serving his time, Suarez returned to action as a substitute in Liverpool’s draw with Tottenham Hotspur on Monday night. At Old Trafford on Saturday, Suarez returned to the Liverpool starting eleven, and came face to face with Evra for the first time since the October clash.
Leading up to the game, all the talk had been about the pre-game handshake, with both parties adamant that their player would adhere to the Premier League ritual. But, as Suarez made his way towards Evra, the striker shocked everyone by choosing not to shake the hand of the Frenchman. Immediately, Evra remonstrated and fellow United defender Rio Ferdinand reacted by refusing to shake Suarez hand. A moment that was meant to bring an end to the rift, instead set the tone for a stormy afternoon in Manchester.
Less than a minute into the game, the pair looked destined for a 50-50 tackle until Ferdinand got in the way and was dumped to the floor by his team-mate. With Suarez’ every touch accompanied by boos from the Old Trafford faithful, the striker lost his cool as the half-time whistle blew, when he fired the ball into the crowd. The anger of the United players spilt into the tunnel, with stewards called in to break the feuding teams up. To round off a fiery encounter, as the final whistle sounded Evra celebrated overexuberantly and in front of Suarez, resulting in both sets of players renewing hostilities.
All this overshadowed what was an important game for both sides as United looked to leapfrog neighbours Manchester City at the top of the table, whilst Liverpool continue to strive for a top four finish.
Despite the pre-match goings on, it was the visitors who started better, with Glen Johnson narrowly curling the ball wide of David De Gea’s far post. Johnson’s opposite number, United right-back Rafael, was next to go close as he forced Pepe Reina into a save low to his right.
With the game played mostly in central midfield, it wasn’t until the 30th minute that the next chance arose. A neat passing move involving Paul Scholes, Danny Welbeck and Rooney, saw veteran Scholes play the ball out wide to Ryan Giggs. The Welshman delivered a sumptuous delivery into the box, where the onrushing Scholes headed straight at Reina.
Shortly before the break, Suarez courted more controversy when he skipped past Evra, but fell under the challenge of Ferdinand. The Reds’ striker appealed to the officials, but replays showed that referee Phil Dowd was correct to deem it a fair challenge.
With tensions high after the half-time tunnel bust-up, United capitalised twice in the opening 5 minutes of the second-half. First, a Giggs corner found its way to the far post, from where Rooney had engineered a yard of space to fire a first-time volley into the net. Minutes later, Jay Spearing gave the ball away to the excellent Antonio Valencia, who advanced towards the Liverpool box before releasing Rooney, whose cool finish made it two.
It could, and maybe should, have been a hat-trick for Rooney, when Valencia toyed with Jose Enrique for the umpteenth time, before rolling the ball into the path of Rooney, via a Scholes dummy. The England striker though took a touch too many before prodding the ball wide.
With Liverpool struggling to get back into the game, Dalglish made a double change just after the hour mark. Spearing and the ineffective Stewart Downing made way for Craig Bellamy and Andy Carroll. When Charlie Adam became the Reds’ third throw of the dice on 75 minutes, Liverpool began to see more of the ball and possessed more of an attacking threat. It was from an Adam free-kick that they got back in the game, when the ball rebounded off Ferdinand for Suarez, who else?, to fire home from six yards.
The Reds went looking for an equaliser and only a brilliant tip over from De Gea from Johnson’s fierce 20-yard shot denied the visitors what would have been an unlikely point.
The win saw United go top for 24 hours, whilst defeat was another blow to Liverpool’s hopes of reaching the top four. But, the repercussions of the result took a back seat, with the Evra-Suarez affair the headline maker for the wrong reasons once again.
Manchester United: De Gea; Rafael, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia, Scholes, Carrick, Giggs; Welbeck, Rooney
Subs not used: Amos, Fabio, Park, Cleverley, Pogba, Berbatov, Hernandez
Goals: Rooney (47, 50)
Liverpool: Reina; Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Enrique; Kuyt (Adam 75), Henderson, Spearing (Carroll 61), Gerrard, Downing (Bellamy 61); Suarez
Subs not used: Doni, Carragher, Kelly, Shelvey
Goal: Suarez (80)
Referee: Mr Phil Dowd
Yellow Cards: Carrick, Downing
Man Of The Match: Wayne Rooney (Manchester United) – The England striker proved to be the match-winner netting two goals in three minutes at the start of the second half