By David Lynch at Anfield
With the build-up dominated by Hillsborough and handshakes, it was comforting to see Manchester United and Liverpool get back to what they do best on Sunday afternoon. Well, sort of.
The fierce North West rivals played out an enthralling contest with goals, controversial decisions and two sets of fans consumed by all the good things which make this rivalry so intense. That it was done so in an environment bereft of songs about the dead was a credit to all supporters and the management teams of both clubs, who had done so much to discourage such behaviour beforehand.
The day got off to the best possible start, as every fan present respectfully appreciated the tasteful tributes to the 96 people lost in the Hillsborough disaster. The shrine to those who died that day, situated by the Shankly gates, has rarely been as heavily decorated, and there was plenty of encouragement to take from the United shirts hastily positioned by it and covered in written tributes.
That Patrice Evra and Luis Suarez put their personal differences aside for the pre-match handshakes was also a welcome relief. Both men accepted the day was bigger than their egos and should be credited for their role in allowing the pre-match tributes to go off without a hitch.
Such shows of reverence set the scene perfectly for one of the finest examinations of the blood and guts of English football’s biggest game in some time.
The Reds were undoubtedly in charge from the off, dominating a fragile United midfield and looking far from a team which started the day in the Premier League’s bottom three. The visitors had made the rather unwise decision to give Luis Suarez the freedom of the Anfield pitch, and the Uruguayan subsequently took full advantage in orchestrating a number of brilliant attacks.
However, after growing frustrated at his side’s failure to make a goalscoring breakthrough after 38 minutes, Jonjo Shelvey decided to play his own part in conveying the adrenaline-drenched nature of the fixture perfectly – and to the hosts’ detriment.
The 20-year-old midfielder thundered into a challenge with Jonny Evans which lacked sufficient control for referee Mark Halsey; though the defender was perhaps fortunate to reach the ball second given his own tackle appeared reckless. Regardless, the official had little choice but to brandish a red card, a consequence of which was the goodwill which had been so hard to forge dissipated rather quickly.
The foul-mouthed volley the Romford-born playmaker launched at Sir Alex Ferguson in the immediate aftermath was a moment not in keeping with what had gone before, or in fact what followed it. It ended up being one of few stains on a day in which both clubs did much to restore their credibility and that of football as a whole.
That sending off also provided a huge boost to the Red Devils’ fans, who had seen their side out-thought and out-passed for much of the game up until that point. Subsequently, when the second half got underway, it appeared Liverpool were facing an uphill battle to simply hang onto a point, despite having dominated for so long.
Steven Gerrard soon put paid to that theory, however, with a brilliantly controlled finish just minutes into the second period. The captain’s point to the sky following his strike – a mark of respect to his cousin, Jon-Paul Gilhooley, the youngest of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster – was a fitting summary of the gravity of the day.
Of course, United’s equaliser just five minutes later was a rather apt summary of the mental strength which has cemented their position as the greatest threat to Liverpool’s status as English football’s biggest club. Rafael curled wonderfully in at the far post to underline the class the Red Devils possess all over the pitch and ensure that Liverpool fans did not dream of an unlikely win for too long.
The Robin van Persie goal which eventually won the game, a penalty awarded after Glen Johnson’s clumsy foul on Antonio Valencia, was enthusiastically condemned by Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers afterwards.
The 39-year-old insisted the Ecuadorian went down under “no contact” and pointed to an earlier situation involving Suarez which he believed should have resulted in a spot-kick.
The matter simply proved that in reality, Sunday’s result did not matter. The return of good-natured needle, arguing over refereeing decisions and humorous banners – such as the brilliant “MUFC – Over 18 only” flag passed around the away end – mean this clash is set to return to its glory days, when it flourished on mutual respect. Even Shelvey’s moment of madness could not take the shine off that.
To put it simply, and to paraphrase a popular song at Old Trafford: We’ve got our derby back.
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