It was down in the same corner of the ground where everything had kicked off three months ago and Patrice Evra was involved again. Luis Suarez was not, of course, but from his seat in the stand he would soon be on his feet celebrating a winning goal that at that stage of a disappointing FA Cup tie, the most optimistic Liverpool supporter could hardly have been expecting. With 87 minutes played and Manchester United apparently heading for a replay that was the least they deserved, Andy Carroll flicked on Pepe Reina's long goal-kick and suddenly Evra was caught out on the wrong side of Dirk Kuyt, who ran on to drive a low shot past David de Gea.
The Dutchman, who had scored a hat-trick against United last season – also in the absence of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand – but only came on as a substitute in the second half yesterday, looked as though he would jump into the Kop in celebration. Three sides of Anfield swelled to a volume level rarely heard since the epic Champions' League 'ghost goal' against Jose Mourinho's Chelsea; 6,000 visiting supporters, who had played their part in what Kenny Dalglish generously called "friendly banter", were stunned. Having knocked Liverpool out of the Cup in Dalglish's first match back as manager a year ago, then drawn 1-1 in the Suarez-Evra match in October, United must now wait a fortnight for revenge in the return League game at Old Trafford, when the Uruguayan will be available.
Had United held on for the replay they were well worth, it would have meant two meetings in four days, which might have been a little much for all concerned. As it was, there was only one yellow card all game and nothing more than the persistent booing of Evra to distinguish this from a normal East Lancs Road derby. Indeed, as experienced an observer as the old Liverpoool hero John Aldridge, commenting on local radio, felt the atmosphere for most of the time was quiet and that until the dramatic denouement, the encounter was "like watching paint dry at times".
He was none too impressed either with his old club, who had made four changes from the side that knocked Manchester City out of the Carling Cup in midweek. Dalglish felt that effort had drained them, but his introduction of Martin Kelly, Jamie Carragher, Maxi Rodriguez and Carroll for Glen Johnson, Charlie Adam, Kuyt and Craig Bellamy was no sort of improvement. The three last-named were all introduced by the end, two of them with little more than an hour played, which illustrated the manager's concern at how things were panning out.
Carragher, whose days as first-choice centre-half seem to be over, was deployed in front of the back four, but allowed Park Ji-Sung to score from the position he should have been covering and was the first man replaced as Liverpool tried to seize the initiative. They had never really held it, despite taking the lead from their first opportunity midway through the opening half. The goal came soon after United, moving smoothly through midfield, had hit the post. Antonio Valencia, excellent down the right, accelerated past Maxi and from 20 yards struck the far upright with Reina beaten.
As Liverpool responded, Chris Smalling headed out Jose Enrique's shot for a corner. When Steven Gerrard took it, De Gea was prevented by the number of players in front of him from attacking the ball, but he was slow in retreating and was therefore in no-man's land as Daniel Agger rose to plant a header into the net.
The lead lasted 17 minutes, in which neither side threatened again until Valencia flicked on a pass down the right to the overlapping Rafael da Silva. The right-back cut it back perfectly for Park, who still had work to do and did it splendidly with his right-footed drive. That was the sum of the first half and even in the second there was little required of either goalkeeper. De Gea still worried United with some of his handling, once presenting the ball to Stewart Downing on the byline and then fumbling a straightforward cross to the far post for a corner. Danny Welbeck had half a chance when managing to nick the ball past the onrushing Reina, only to find Martin Skrtel covering up.
Sir Alex Ferguson sent Javier Hernandez on to support Welbeck because, he said: "I was looking to win it. To lose it is a real sickening blow. We dominated the game in terms of possession. We did very well in that respect. But to lose the game is hard to believe." Lose it they did, when Carroll beat Jonny Evans in the air and Kuyt beat Evra to the flick-on.
Liverpool (4-1-4-1): Reina; Kelly, Skrtel, Agger, Enrique; Carragher; Downing, Gerrard. Henderson, Maxi; Carroll
Manchester Utd (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Smalling, Evans, Evra; Carrick, Scholes; Valencia, Park, Giggs; Welbeck.
Referee: Mark Halsey
Man of the match: Skrtel (Liverpool)
Match rating: 6/10
Liverpool 2 (Agger, Kuyt) Manchester United 1 (Park)
Caught in the spotlight
So the FA didn't cancel this handshake?
No, and it passed off without any great incident. Liverpool players duly filed past him – albeit without any great warmth – and their captain, Steven Gerrard, who had urged supporters to concentrate on the football, shook his hand as the pair met in the centre circle for the coin toss.
How did the crowd react?
They booed every Evra touch, redoubled the volume for his fouls and cheered when any Liverpool player managed to foul him. In between times there were chants of "there's only one lying bastard". "Nothing untoward," according to Liverpool's manager, Kenny Dalglish.
And how did he play?
It was a solid enough captain's performance until it mattered most, in the last few minutes of the game. Then, critically, Dirk Kuyt reacted faster than Evra to nip past him and score the winning goal.
Was Luis Suarez in attendance?
The television cameras regularly homed in on him in the main stand in his purple anorak, leaping to his feet at both Liverpool goals. He completes his eight-match ban in midweek and will be available against Tottenham a week tomorrow.