Ending Liverpool's 12- game unbeaten run in the last minute of the match may only have cut Chelsea's lead to 14 points but in the one competition that is still relevant in the Premiership - the race for second place - United struck a mighty blow yesterday.
Rafael Benitez, the Liverpool manager, appeared to question the validity of the free-kick that led to United's winning goal but Ferdinand's third goal in eight Premiership matches, his first goals for the club since he joined in 2002, are the seeds of yet another mini-revival from Sir Alex Ferguson's team.
If the Glazer brothers watching from the stands wished to know why United's chief executive, David Gill, had yesterday put such emphasis on signing a new central midfielder in the summer, the presence of Ryan Giggs and John O'Shea in the middle will have given them a clue. Ferguson is now down to the bare bones of his squad with Alan Smith suspended, Paul Scholes injured and Roy Keane long departed, and there could hardly have been a worst game in which to have to improvise.
Giggs began the season as a very occasional selection on the left wing, he began yesterday afternoon as the latest replacement for a ball-winner against a Liverpool midfield which cannot even find a place for Steven Gerrard in its centre.
United are - aside from Birmingham City - the only top-flight team that Benitez has not beaten since he arrived at Liverpool in the summer of 2004. Waving their inflatable European Cups and the sheets of paper baring a simple "5" - in reference to their number of triumphs in that competition - Liverpool's support did their best to suggest that after 15 years of inequality their time to reassert themselves had come. On the pitch, their gradual oppression of United's midfield seemed to confirm that, but it took more than a half for the visitors to establish themselves as the dominant side.
Any team which makes an assumption about the weakness of a United team must factor in the contribution of Wayne Rooney who, even in a poor United side is capable of being the game's most significant player. He needs no second invitation to perform against Liverpool and roamed deep in his own half to seek out possession, receiving at one point in the first half an uncompromising challenge from behind from his England team-mate Gerrard
The old brutality of a local derby was all that lingered from the first half: a collision between Peter Crouch and Neville, a challenge from Kieran Richardson on Mohamed Sissoko. It was the Liverpool midfielder who created the best chance of the first half on 34 minutes when he flicked a ball over United's defence which Crouch headed down to Djibril Cissé whose shot was deflected wide by Wes Brown.
If there was one consolation United could take from a first half in which their sole attacking threat was Rooney, it was that Patrice Evra's second game for his new team was not quite as disastrous as the 45 minutes against Manchester City the previous week that resulted in his half-time substitution. The French left-back is not quite the rampaging attacking force that United have in the injured Gabriel Heinze but then he was not exposed to the same extent as against City.
The £7.2m Serbian centre-half Nemanja Vidic still waits for his first action in a United shirt, although his effect on his new club's existing defence appears to be positive. It was in defence that Ferguson demanded his side "must do better" in his programme notes, and against Crouch and Cissé, Ferdinand, in particular, looked comfortable, though a collision with the French forward after the hour forced him to race back and hook the ball off his own line.
That was the moment when Liverpool went closest - from the loose ball, Harry Kewell struck a shot that Edwin van der Sar parried to Cissé's feet and the striker shot wildly over the bar from close range.
Ferguson had brought Louis Saha on for John O'Shea at half-time and Rooney, although appearing to take up a right wing position in the early part of the half, was given a wider freedom to roam wherever the mood took him.
He was the source of United's revival in the latter stages of the game. Driving United forward, he broke down the right on 84 minutes and struck a shot past Jose Reina's right-hand post. Moments later he was chasing substitute Florent Sinama-Pongolle deep into his own half for a tackle that earned him a booking.
The goal that ended Liverpool's unbeaten run came, however, from the left when Evra clashed with Steve Finnan and stumbled to the ground. His free-kick was met by Ferdinand, whose header from close range gave Liverpool scarcely any time to redress the balance.
It was a conclusion to a match as dramatic as what had preceded it had been bland. Rooney headed in celebration towards the pitchside camera and Neville for the Liverpool fans.
Goal: Ferdinand (90) 1-0.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Brown, Evra; Fletcher, O'Shea (Saha, h-t), Giggs, Richardson; Rooney, Van Nistelrooy. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Vidic, Silvestre, Rossi.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise; Gerrard, Sissoko (Kromkamp, 89), Alonso, Kewell; Crouch (Morientes, 60), Cissé (Sinama-Pongolle, 75). Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Traoré.
Referee: M Riley (West Yorkshire).
Booked: Manchester United Richardson, Rooney; Liverpool Sissoko, Alonso, Gerrard.
Man of the match: Rooney.
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