Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers insisted tonight that an elusive first win against a top 10 Premier League side could help his own team to turn the corner in a difficult season which has left them 24 points behind the leaders Manchester United.
Rodgers had grounds for optimism in the performance of substitute Daniel Sturridge, who scored and twice hit the side-netting in a tense finish to the game which briefly sent United 10 points clear before second-placed Manchester City's win at Arsenal. A desperately timid first hour meant Liverpool could have few complaints but with matches against Arsenal and Manchester City in a four-day period beginning later this month, Rodgers maintained that one win can change things.
"We've been close in a number of the games against the guys in the top part of the league," Rodgers said. "To win those games can send the game off in a totally different direction. This is a club which has dominated for many years. People still talk about United's [1990 FA Cup third round] game against Nottingham Forest here. That was defining."
Sir Alex Ferguson, whose winger Ashley Young left Old Trafford on crutches after a challenge on Daniel Agger, was barbed about referee Howard Webb's decision not to award Shinji Kagawa a first-half penalty. Ferguson claimed that Liverpool defender Andre Wisdom pushed Kagawa into Pepe Reina. "Shinji was brought down but Howard Webb wasn't going to give us that today," he said.
Ferguson was also unhappy about the slack defending which allowed Sturridge to pounce on the rebound after goalkeeper David de Gea parried Steven Gerrard's shot. "Once again the goalie's parried one out and nobody's following in the rebounds and it lifted them – that's without doubt. But some of our defending after that was a bit erratic, desperate even at times." United have not kept a clean sheet in their last 10 Premier League meetings home and away. Yesterday was the first time all season that they had not conceded first in four consecutive games.
Rodgers said he was justified in not playing the £12m new signing Sturridge from the start – despite his contribution, plus goals in each of the two games he has played in for Liverpool. "I've been assessing him in training," he said. "Sometimes you can rush them back too quickly and break them. It's just a case of building him into it. Another good week's training and he'll be into it."
Rodgers admitted that his side were too timid in the first half – a period in which Ferguson claimed United could have scored "three or four". The Liverpool manager said: "I think [the belief] just needs reinforcing. When you play an opponent and rival you need two things – courage to play and the belief. I feel we were a wee bit too tentative. We wanted to pass the ball but we were tentative. At half-time we made changes tactically [but also] reinforced the fact that they are really good players."
Of Sturridge, Rodgers added: "I just think this is a boy that can be a real top striker in this country and can be a really top striker for Liverpool. This boy is a goalscorer. He had one goal and a couple of times was unlucky. A few times he tried to organise his feet in the box and could not get a shot away."
Ferguson's tribute came for Danny Welbeck, selected ahead of Javier Hernandez in attack for the home side. "He was fantastic," the manager said. "I thought he and Robin [van Persie] gave the two centre-backs a real hard day of it, particularly in the first half. The reason [we picked Welbeck] was we wanted to make sure we could have someone who could drop into their central midfield player, which he did well. He's run his legs off for us today, and he deserved the man of the match."
Ferguson said Patrice Evra had wanted the goal, awarded to Nemanja Vidic, which would have made the French defender United's fourth top scorer of this season, with a tally of five. "He's not happy. He's not happy at all," Ferguson said. "He wants it to go to the pools [dubious goal] panel."