Liverpool rose to the occasion in the first half against Manchester United in an encounter which marked their first game at Anfield since the recent report into the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy.
However, the Reds could not turn their dominance into goals and, after being reduced to 10 men, they paid the price in the second half, with United coming to life after the break to claim a 2-1 win.
Brendan Rodgers reverted to his strongest Liverpool side for the visit of United after fielding a less experienced line-up against Young Boys in the midweek Europa League tie. The manager saw his 11 changes rewarded with a spirited display, but it could not generate the Reds' first win of the season. Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez were among the big names that returned and both pulled out impressive showings, while teenage winger Raheem Sterling refused to be daunted by the big game atmosphere and was another stand-out performer.
Manchester United were without captain Nemanja Vidic for the encounter due to injury so Sir Alex Ferguson passed the armband to Ryan Giggs, who was one of the three changes from the UEFA Champions League win in midweek. The United veteran was run ragged in midfield as Liverpool dominated the first half and found it difficult to link with the Red Devils' attack. Rio Ferdinand returned to the backline in place of Vidic and was kept busy subduing Suarez at the head of Liverpool's frontline, while goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard also returned in place of David De Gea and returned Ferguson's faith in him with a number of confident saves.
Rodgers' familiar 4-3-3 formation worked well in the first half as Liverpool dominated, with the lively Sterling providing service for Suarez from the right and linking up well with Martin Kelly, who showed his prowess getting forward. Fabio Borini was less effective down the left channel as he continued to struggle to settle but behind him Glen Johnson was another attacking threat and was dangerous bombing forward. At the heart of the action, Steven Gerrard pulled the strings in midfield and beside him Joe Allen was typically assured at keeping the ball. Despite their dominance, Liverpool couldn't make the most of their chances, which cost them. Their play became narrower in the second half to deal with Jonjo Shelvey's dismissal and fewer opportunities came as result.
Ferguson's side was set up to attack but they barely created anything in the first half, with Reds goalkeeper Pepe Reina a spectator for the most part. Nani and Antonio Valencia looked anonymous out wide early on, leaving lone striker Robin van Persie starved of service, while Shinji Kagawa often looked isolated in the hole as Giggs and Michael Carrick struggled to get a grip on midfield. Patrice Evra failed to contribute much going forward as Sterling ran him ragged, while Rafael was kept occupied with Borini and Suso in the second half, but did well with his goal.
The introduction of Suso for Borini at half-time was understandable after the Italian had failed to offer much in the first 45 minutes, again begging the question of whether Rodgers is putting a square peg in a round hole playing him out wide rather than in his preferred central position. Teenage youngster Suso looked bright in attack even though he couldn't turn things around, and kept his composure well after being thrown in at the deep end in such a high-profile game. Eyebrows will have been raised by Rodgers' second change as he brought on Henderson for Sterling, who looked dangerous in the first half, but the teenager had faded when asked to do more work in midfield to make up the numbers. His replacement brought fresh energy to the middle of the park but couldn't provide a breakthrough. More woe came for Rodgers late on when Daniel Agger was stretchered off with a leg injury and veteran Jamie Carragher made a brief appearance in his place.
It didn't come as much of a surprise when Ferguson brought on Paul Scholes at half-time, with United desperately needing to take control in midfield. The seasoned midfielder replaced Nani after the Portuguese player endured an afternoon to forget and brought a sense of composure the Red Devils were lacking in the first half. However, his appearance wasn't without flaws as he committed a string of misplaced tackles which could have been costly. Ferguson was obviously looking to put the result beyond doubt when he introduced Javier Hernandez for Kagawa late on but 'Chicharito' could not repeat his super-sub heroics of previous games. United's final change of Danny Welbeck for goalscorer Rafael in the dying stages appeared mostly to kill some time.
It was a tough afternoon for referee Mark Halsey and he won't be too popular with the Anfield faithful after his display. The fixture has thrown up plenty of controversy in the past and Sunday was no exception, with Halsey's biggest decision coming in the 39th minute when Shelvey and Evans both charged in for the ball. Both players appeared to go in with feet off the ground but it was only the Liverpool man who was dismissed over the incident, much to the fury of the home crowd, with Evans not even earning a booking. The Reds felt further injustice in the second half when Halsey pointed to the spot after Valencia went down in the box after being caught by Johnson. Manager Rodgers said after the game the spot-kick was particularly hard to take given Suarez had been clipped by Evans at the other end and nothing was given, but the exaggerated way he went down may not have helped his cause.
With Liverpool in the relegation places and without a win this season, supporters have little reason to be cheerful. However, they can take heart from the way their side rose to the occasion on a significant afternoon at Anfield. The Reds bossed the first half, with United not getting a look-in, and they will be wishing they had made the most of their chances. Liverpool are still lacking a cutting edge and need to work on turning dominance into goals.
Ferguson made it clear after the game he was not impressed with United's performance but admitted the result is what counts. It may not have been pretty, but for the Red Devils it was another three points that fired them into second in the Premier League. With another tough encounter next up against Tottenham, the manager will be keen to avoid his side repeating their lacklustre showing of the first half.