Rooney still burdened by Anfield curse as Gerrard steals show again


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The Independent Football

Of course, Wayne Rooney would have known that from Croxteth to Kirkby they had been working towards this day for weeks. Sure enough, from the galaxy of tonsorial possibilities yesterday, we were treated to 'Who's the Scouser in the wig?' and 'You baldy bastard, the hair is not yours' from the old Kop end. Rooney was standing in the shadow of the Anfield Road stand and aware already that success at this cursed stadium was eluding him again.

Sir Alex Ferguson cited compassionate grounds for leaving him on the bench. "He's had a bad week. He's devastated by his suspension. I just felt with these circumstances he should be on the bench," he said. But Ferguson tends to work on his sense of which grounds are lucky for his players and Rooney's solitary goal in 10 trips to Anfield would have contributed to his remarkable decision to leave him out of a fixture which he described only 48 hours earlier as the biggest in world football.

So just as at Everton last season, when rumours of Goodison's proposed 'No woman, no Kai' shouts were circulating, Ferguson restricted Rooney's exposure to 25 minutes. There was just the thumping welcome challenge from Dirk Kuyt, an aerial tussle lost to Steven Gerrard – and a tackle on Charlie Adam that left the midfielder wondering what that was all about.

The afternoon was undoubtedly Liverpool's and above all Steven Gerrard's. It was the captain's first start for seven months but his own manager's confidence in him would have matched Ferguson's concerns for Rooney. Gerrard's goal yesterday took his tally against United to five in the Premier League. Only Robbie Fowler's six goals is a better record, though the captain's contribution against United is always so substantial that it seems like he has scored more. There were two goals on the day he kissed the camera, last September, and was also at his peak on the day of Liverpool's 4-1 win at Old Trafford, 18 months earlier. "He has contributed to the success of this club in everything he has done," Dalglish said of Gerrard last night.

It was actually an occasion when Gerrard and his manager were at odds. Dalglish's icy resolve to refuse to give Ferguson the satisfaction of knowing this match matters had led him to suggest before the game that United were as important an opponent to him as Norwich City, Liverpool's next opposition. Gerrard's programme notes began with a more realistic assessment. "Without a doubt this is one of the biggest games of the season," he said. "When the new fixtures come out you scan them for United home and away." He proved he meant it, too.

Gerrard's boyhood on Huyton's Bluebell Estate might not be so far away, geographically or economically, from Rooney's in Croxteth but when it comes to their final reckonings, it will be said that Gerrard is the one of the two with the temperament for all occasions. It is an asset not to be underestimated and the psychological deficit between him and Rooney is certainly one that United felt yesterday. Sven Goran Eriksson's assessment of Rooney is that he's a better player than he was in 2002. "You can use him a little bit all over the field," he said. That is precisely what United needed in a first half which revealed little more than the excellence of Liverpool's Jose Enrique and how far Danny Welbeck must travel before he really can be cast as the man to fill the hole left by Rooney in the early part of next summer's European Championships.

Fortunately for Ferguson, United also possess the qualities of Javier Hernandez (pictured), his own deadly contribution after arriving from the bench revealing that United's strength in depth is the greater and that, as Liverpool's owner John W Henry has acknowledged, remain several years ahead. That Dalglish could take satisfaction in disappointment as a sign of "how far we've come" said more about the gulf. Rooney will have more trophies when their playing days are done but when Gerrard sits down with him in a television studio, perhaps 10 years from now, the older man will be the one reflecting on the stirring battles between the two camps positioned either end of the M62 and concluding that those were the days.