Misfiring United defy hot-shot Gerrard to escape with a point

Liverpool 1 Manchester United 1: Ferguson springs Hernandez from the bench to add vital touch after Liverpool's midfield talisman does his best to steal the show
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Steven Gerrard, returning as Liverpool captain, said there was nothing worse than "sitting in the stands watching these games", and for 45 minutes yesterday that was exactly how the rest of us felt. After a wretched opening period, a rare goalless draw seemed in prospect – there had been only one of them previously in a rivalry dating back to 1895 – but mercifully the entertainment value improved as the game built to a frantic finish in which Liverpool were several times close to the victory they deserved.

They remained within six points of Manchester United, who later lost their lead at the top of the table to their noisy neighbours and next Premier League opponents. The champions have a poor recent record here and indeed away to most of their genuine rivals, so Sir Alex Ferguson was satisfied with the outcome. He even managed a joke about the "bad defensive play" by Ryan Giggs, who inexplicably jumped out of the way of the Gerrard free-kick that put Liverpool ahead.

Ferguson felt the draw was a fair result, which put him in a minority that predictably did not include his opposite number. Kenny Dalglish said the first half had been "sterile" but added: "We could have all three points. It's a real indication of how far we've come that they're disappointed in the dressing room having drawn with Manchester United."

Dalglish also claimed not to be surprised at the sight of a United teamsheet omitting the names of Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez, and showing a starting XI that might have been described as Ashley Young guns. Danny Welbeck was the main striker, a role he performed assiduously without forging any scoring chances, and two of last summer's England Under-21 side, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, were behind him. Ryan Giggs must have felt like a grand old man in midfield.

Smalling coped at right-back, even if it is not his best position, although perhaps too much is being asked of Jones and his versatility; for all his obvious promise he did not look ready for a defensive midfield role in a game of this magnitude. DarrenFletcher could not take hold of the central area either, Charlie Adam and Lucas Leiva holding sway there, even if Gerrard was often peripheral while out wide on the right.

"Sterile" was as good a word as any for the opening 45 minutes, which were reminiscent of what Neil Young – the singer, not the late Manchester City winger – once said of one of his compositions: "It starts off real slow, then kinda fizzles out altogether." Right from United's kick-off, Fletcher gave the ball away, and by the interval almost every player on the pitch had done the same. It was 20 minutes before Gerrard whipped a cross-shot beyond the far post as United dozed in the sun at a short corner, and more than half an hour before either goalkeeper was required to make a save; David de Gea, who went on to have an excellent game, blocked a shot from Luis Suarez that was too straight.

The second half was better from the start, with an early controversy too. Liverpool wanted a penalty when Dirk Kuyt's header struck Jonny Evans, but it was ball to arm not the other way round. Rooney was stripped and ready to join the fray when Adam's driving run took him past two players before he collapsed at the slightest nick from behind by Rio Ferdinand, who could still have received a second yellow card. Gerrard was honest enough to admit he intended to dip the free-kick over the wall, but in leaning sideways Giggs allowed him to find a convenient hole through which to drive it.

For a while it was something more like old United, in attitude if not age, throwing attacking players forward after bringing on Rooney, Nani and Hernandez; and it was the Mexican who claimed the equaliser by losing Martin Skrtel to head in as Welbeck, also unmarked, flicked on a corner.

Nine minutes from time that appeared to be that, only for Liverpool to force more chances than in the previous 81. De Gea saved well from Kuyt's jab, and then clawed away Jordan Henderson's lobbed volley. Skrtel and Stewart Downing shot too high and Henderson's header landedon top of the net.

"We're happy with a point, which is not a bad result," Ferdinand said. "There was the slightest contact [for the free-kick] but not enough to make a fella who's 12 or 13 stone fall on the floor." From deeply unpromising beginnings, however, both sideshad cause to be satisfied in their different ways.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Kelly, Skrtel, Carragher, Enrique; Gerrard, Lucas (Henderson, 57), Adam, Downing; Kuyt, Suarez.

Manchester United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Smalling, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra; Fletcher, Jones (Hernandez, 76); Young (Nani, 69), Giggs, Park (Rooney, 69); Welbeck.

Referee: Andre Marriner.

Man of the match: Adam (Liverpool)

Match rating: 6/10

View from the side

Box seat for mighty James What Liverpool needed for the final fling was a 6ft 8in basketball player on the end of those crosses. But Reds shareholder LeBron James of Miami Heat was confined to the directors' box, after contributing $10,000 (£6,300) to the Liverpool Foundation.

Rooney suffers bad hair day After the tasteless chanting at United's recent Carling Cup tie against Leeds, and Tottenham's derby with Arsenal, the terrace wit was comparatively decorous. Wayne Rooney's hair transplant bore the brunt from the Kop, with "Who's the Scouser in the wig?"

United fans cut down to size United's following was smaller than normal for this fixture. Liverpool copied several other clubs in reducing the visitors' allocation because of their habit of standing throughout the whole game.