Sir Alex Ferguson questioned last night whether referee Andre Marriner had the experience to referee the cauldron of a Liverpool-Manchester United fixture after declaring that pressure from the crowd had contributed to Nemanja Vidic receiving his third red card in successive fixtures against his club's most visceral rivals.
"The crowd got Vidic booked, but this atmosphere is hard to handle for a referee," said Ferguson, who felt Vidic's first yellow, for a challenge on Fernando Torres, was more questionable than his second, on Dirk Kuyt at the end of the game. "Their fans were fanatical and [with] every decision, they put the referee under pressure all the time. Whether he had enough experience or not, I don't know, but he will certainly learn from it."
The Football Association, which awaits Ferguson's response to its charge of improper conduct relating to his criticism of Alan Wiley, may take a dim view of his comments about Marriner, 38, who has five years' experience refereeing in the top flight. Both of Vidic's cards looked fair.
The United manager felt that Liverpool, facing their first run of five straight defeats in 56 years, had "got a wee bit caught up in the atmosphere".
The intensity continued after the game when his club captain, Gary Neville, who had been subjected to abuse from Liverpool fans while warming up with the substitutes, was involved in a row with a Liverpool steward. In a fracas with overtones of the so-called Battle of Stamford Bridge in April last year, Neville was unhappy that the steward had not allowed him back on to the pitch for a warm-down after the match. The steward seemed to think that Neville's presence would antagonise Liverpool fans still in the ground. Neville and Jonny Evans eventually moved to the other end of the pitch.
Ferguson had suggested before the game that a disproportionate number of United players were dismissed at Anfield – Vidic's 89th-minute red was the sixth issued to a United player in the club's last 12 visits to L4 – though even he conceded last night that Rafael Benitez's side were worth their third successive win over his own. "All in all, Liverpool were the better team. They created more chances and were better than us on the day," he said.
But Ferguson (below) was justifiably aggrieved that Jamie Carragher avoided a similar fate to Vidic for bundling Michael Owen to the ground, denying him his first goal for an opposing club at Anfield on 87 minutes. "The laws of the game were altered to prevent professional fouls of that nature and if Jamie Carragher goes off, he is their best player and their captain," Ferguson said.
Carragher admitted that he had impeded Owen – who had received a torrid welcome when he entered the fray on 74 minutes. "I didn't know it was him [Owen]. You'll do anything to stop someone going through," Carragher said.
Though Liverpool also lost Javier Mascherano to a late red card, Ferguson felt that United also deserved a penalty for Carragher's first-half challenge on Michael Carrick.
Liverpool remain eight points adrift of the leaders Chelsea but Torres' ninth goal in 11 games before David Ngog's breakaway five minutes into injury time provided something to savour for Benitez. "Our players are good players," he said. "When people talk about our sequence [of defeats] I say the same thing: we have four or five players missing and when they are fit it will make the difference."
Liverpool owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett made a show of friendship in the directors' box, though 2,000 fans protested against them outside the ground before the game.