Such has been Robin van Persie’s impact since joining Manchester United in the summer, Wayne Rooney’s absence for the Liverpool tie was more of an inconvenience than a disaster for Sir Alex Ferguson. The 29-year-old has netted six goals in his last seven appearances against the Reds, and Van Persie continued this run at Old Trafford. Despite Liverpool centre-half Daniel Agger superbly marshalling the Netherlands international as Denmark won 1-0 in their opening Euro 2012 fixture, the Dane was fooled by Van Persie’s cunning movement for the opening goal. Brendan Rodgers’ men looked comfortable in the opening 15 minutes before the Red Devils finally upped their intensity. A neat exchange of short, intricate passes saw the ball sprayed out to Patrice Evra on the left, and the defender’s cross was tucked past Pepe Reina by Van Persie. It was the striker’s movement, taking a step backwards before moving forward again to connect with the low ball, which manufactured the space to score. He also played a part in United’s second, delivering an inswinging cross which found Evra unmarked, with Nemanja Vidic deflecting the Frenchman’s header past Reina.
Liverpool’s solid start was undone by a sweeping United move which finally bypassed Lucas Leiva, who had until the 19th minute, cut of the supply line to Van Persie. The Brazil international was the visitors’ standout performer in the first half, breaking up attacks with a subtle tackles – although he was booked after a series of late challenges just before the interval. With Suárez looking increasingly isolated, Rodgers needed to make a change to offer some support to the Uruguayan striker, who has scored 15 Premier League goals this season. Liverpool’s £12m signing Daniel Sturridge was introduced with Lucas withdrawn at half-time, prompting the visitors to switch to an orthodox 4-4-2 formation. It immediately gave the Reds more attacking threat as they started to test Rio Ferdinand and Vidic, who had very little defending to do in the first half. Although United doubled their advantage shortly after the interval, Sturridge did manage to halve the deficit with his second goal since joining the club. Steven Gerrard’s strong challenge dispossessed Michael Carrick and Liverpool’s skipper’s subsequent shot could only be parried into the path of the former Chelsea man, who fired past David De Gea. There was also signs of a blossoming partnership as Sturridge looked to play Suárez clean through minutes after his goal, before the Uruguayan’s floated pass released his new team-mate, who was unable to beat De Gea at the keeper’s near post. The 23-year-old had a late chance to net an equaliser when the ball fell to him nine-yards out, but he scooped his effort over United’s crossbar. But for Rodgers, Sturridge’s start to life at Liverpool looks promising for the future.
Despite looking relatively comfortable in the opening period, there was an undoubted undertone of edginess present amongst Liverpool’s defenders. This was encapsulated by Pepe Reina’s decision to try and play the ball out of defence with Van Persie and Danny Welbeck pressing Agger and Martin Skrtel, with the Spaniard close to gifting the Red Devils a simple opener. The Slovakian defender was at fault moments later when he misjudged a long ball into Welbeck, conceding a free-kick. The incident would be mirrored in the second half when Evra’s chipped ball caught Skrtel on his heels again, with the centre-half fouling United’s England striker. From the ensuing set-piece, Van Persie’s cross found Evra who had escaped his marker Glen Johnson and headed goalwards, leaving Vidic to inadvertently get the decisive touch.
Rodgers said ahead of the north-west derby that while Liverpool’s trip to Old Trafford wasn’t necessarily a test of his new-look side, it was a barometer of the progress which has been made since the Northern Irishman replaced Kenny Dalglish in May. United have been slow starters this season, but Ferguson’s men were in command in the early stages, moving ahead inside the opening 20 minutes before extending their advantage in the second half. While it wasn’t the most ruthless of performances, United looked comfortable and for Liverpool, it was a case of crumbling or showing resistance after Vidic’s goal. The latter occurred as the Premier League leaders had to weather a second-half onslaught from Rodgers’ men. The introduction of Fabio Borini and Sturridge injected renewed belief and energy into Liverpool’s side, while the Red Devils defenders were now being dragged out of position, resulting in a state of panic. Particularly in the final 10 minutes, United struggled to clear their lines with Sturridge and Suárez both unable to create a yard of space necessary to test De Gea. For Ferguson’s men, it takes their points tally to 43 (from a possible 48), while the Reds are still to beat a side in the top half of the table this season but can take heart from Sturridge’s impact and their improved performance in the final half hour. With United as consistent as ever, it will be up to Rodgers and Liverpool to close the gap between England’s two most successful clubs to ensure Ferguson starts checking the Merseyside outfit’s league position again.