A day that had started so well ended in disaster for United as Liverpool earned their first league win over the Reds since April 2004 thanks to substitute Ryan Babel's late strike.
Dimitar Berbatov, making his Reds debut, set up Carlos Tevez for the opener after just three minutes. A mix-up between Edwin van der Sar and Wes Brown, which saw the defender credited with an own goal, drew the home side level, before Babel fired the winner 13 minutes from time.
Things got worse for the visitors just before full-time when Nemanja Vidic was dismissed after picking up a second booking. He will now miss the trip to Chelsea next weekend.
The big question before kick-off was who would play up front for United? Would Berbatov start or would Sir Alex stick with Wayne Rooney or Tevez? As it turned out, Sir Alex opted to field all three. Rafael Benitez had no such luxury as he started the match without the services of his two most influential players, skipper Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, who were deemed only fit enough for the bench following groin and hamstring injuries respectively.
United’s three-pronged attack was at it right from the off. With just 40 seconds gone, Rooney collected possession and slipped a pass out to Wes Brown on the right. His cross was deftly flicked on by Tevez to Berbatov who struck a first time effort which hit Martin Skrtel’s left arm, although the Liverpool defender knew little about it. Nearly the perfect start for United’s new boy.
That moment duly arrived just over a minute later as Berbatov played a vital role in giving United the lead. Anderson sent the striker galloping away on the right. Holding off the attentions of Jamie Carragher, he pulled the ball back to the onrushing Tevez who planted a curling effort past a helpless Jose Reina. Berbatov’s team-mates ran to congratulate him for his part in the goal as Anfield fell silent.
The Liverpool faithful were on their feet three minutes later though when Dirk Kuyt took aim from just outside the area after United had failed to clear the ball. But the Dutchman’s volley flew just wide of Edwin van der Sar’s right-hand post.
Van der Sar himself nearly gifted the home side an equaliser on 12 minutes when he spilled a Liverpool corner. Kuyt was quick to pounce on the mistake, but United’s no.1 recovered brilliantly to block his fellow countryman's effort from three yards.
It had been a breathless start, particularly from United. But having looked full of invention in the final third, Sir Alex's men were ultimately the architects of their own downfall as Liverpool drew level on 26 minutes in the most bizarre of fashions. Xabi Alonso’s speculative effort deflected off Patrice Evra into the path of Wes Brown who looked to have it covered. His goalkeeper decided to take matters into his hands, however, and came rushing from his line, only to see his punch rebound back off Brown and into the empty net.
Such a setback could have taken the wind out of United’s sails, but the Reds were not to be deterred. And they almost regained their advantage just two minutes later. Tevez darted to the near post and was found brilliantly by Anderson's low centre. The Argentine beat Carragher to the ball, but his flicked effort flew over Reina’s crossbar.
Liverpool finished the half on top and began the second period in much the same fashion. After a shaky 45 minutes, Edwin van der Sar was alert to the danger posed by Yossi Benayoun’s through run 11 minutes after the restart, blocking well as the midfielder took aim from a tight angle.
Owen Hargreaves entered the fray on 66 minutes, but it was United’s other second half arrival, Ryan Giggs – a half-time sub for the injured Michael Carrick – who went closest to putting the Reds in front again. Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard – on for Benayoun – sold Alonso short 25 yards out. Giggs nipped in, before hitting a superb dipping volley which was well tipped over by a back-pedalling Jose Reina.
It was a rare sight of goal for United who were second best to a Liverpool side that grew in confidence as the game wore on. Having tasted defeat against the Reds in five of the last six games at Anfield, there was a real determination about Benitez’s side to turn the tide.
That looked to be on the cards when Babel became the first Liverpool player to find the net against United in the league since Benitez took over. Ryan Giggs failed to put the ball out for a corner when he had the chance, allowing Mascherano to slip the ball to Kuyt. His cross fell to substitute Babel who, despite hitting his shot into the ground, made it 2-1 in front of a euphoric Kop end.
United’s misery was compounded by the
late dismissal of Vidic, who picked up his second booking of the game for a full-bodied, arm-led challenge on Alonso. Kuyt went close to grabbing a third in injury time but was denied by van der Sar, while Rooney fired wide with seconds left as United desperately searched for an equaliser. It wasn't to be this time.
A defeat is hard to take at best of times, but losing to your fiercest rivals in the manner United did hurts more than any other.
LIVERPOOL: Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Skrtel, Aurelio; Benayoun (Gerrard 68), Alonso, Mascherano (Hyypia 87), Riera (Babel 71); Kuyt, Keane.
Subs not used: Cavalieri, Torres, Ngog, Dossena
UNITED: Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Carrick (Giggs 46), Anderson (Nani 78), Scholes (Hargreaves 66); Berbatov, Rooney, Tevez.
Subs not used: Kuszczak, O’Shea, J. Evans, Fletcher
Booked: Tevez, Vidic, Nani. Sent off: Vidic