London: Robin Van Persie’s contentious penalty secured Manchester United’s first victory at Anfield since December 2007 on an emotionally charged afternoon on Merseyside.
Van Persie’s sixth United goal was enough to claim a barely deserved win in another bad-tempered encounter in which Jonjo Shelvey became the fifth player sent off in the last six league meetings between the two old rivals.
The United striker settled a incident-strewn game nine minutes from time after referee Mark Halsey controversially awarded a penalty after Glen Johnson’s challenge on Antonio Valencia, enabling the visitors to climb into second place and leave Liverpool in the bottom three.
But Halsey’s performance will have only increased the frustration for Brendan Rodgers, after the Liverpool manager lost Shelvey shortly before half-time after a lunge on Jonny Evans. The midfielder was involved in a fierce confrontation with Sir Alex Ferguson as he stormed off towards the tunnel.
Though Liverpool did take the lead through Steven Gerrard, Rafael restored parity before Van Persie produced the vital contribution to leave the hosts still waiting for their first league win under their new manager.
After such a poignant, moving pre-match Hillsborough tribute both teams struggled to settle in a scrappy opening half an hour.
Liverpool dominated possession without ever really causing any problems, while United also struggled to discover any fluency. Van Persie was virtually anonymous in the first period while wingers Nani and Antonio Valencia frequently ran themselves into trouble.
Chances were limited. Luis Suarez tested Anders Lindegaard, restored to the United team in place of David de Gea, with a close-range effort before Gerrard drilled a cleverly conceived Shelvey corner inches wide.
But six minutes before half-time, with the game simmering, came the flashpoint as Shelvey was given a straight red card before a reckless challenge on Evans. It was undoubtedly dangerous and while Evans also could have been punished for showing his studs, Halsey had arguably no alternative, with Shelvey involved in a spat with Ferguson as he aimed for the tunnel.
Ferguson had appeared to turn round to the Liverpool supporters behind him shaking his head at Shelvey receiving a standing ovation, and the young midfielder was escorted to the tunnel by a police officer as he furiously pointed at United’s manager. The dismissal should have served to galvanise the visitors, who had been so lacklustre, but Liverpool were ahead a minute into the second period.
United failed to clear after Glen Johnson’s raid into the penalty area and Gerrard was given far too much time to hook the ball into the corner. Pointing to the sky as he celebrated, it was a richly deserved goal and a fitting tribute.
But United were level within five minutes after a sublime effort from Rafael, taking advantage of Daniel Agger’s hesitancy to curl a shot in off the far post, though the goal owed much to the guile of Paul Scholes, introduced at half-time for the woeful Nani.
Liverpool had chances to regain the lead, with Lindegaard frustrating both Suarez and substitute Suso, before the pivotal, contentious moment 14 minutes from time. Valencia capitalised on a poor pass from Suso to advance into the area and as he prepared to shoot was taken down by Johnson. Van Persie claimed his sixth United goal from the spot, despite the admirable efforts of Pepe Reina.
There was still time for more controversy, as Van Persie escaped with only a caution for a crude lunge on Suso, much to the frustration of Rodgers who is still waiting for lift-off at Anfield.