There have now been 184 meetings between the two most successful clubs in English football history and it is difficult to believe that any other has been surrounded by quite the acrimony of yesterday's. In the Sixties and Seventies the players would kick or fight each other and supporters would do likewise, but here the backdrop was unique.
From the moment that police confiscated every copy of a Manchester United fanzine, through Luis Suarez shockingly snubbing a handshake from Patrice Evra, then a fracas breaking out in the tunnel at half-time and Sir Alex Ferguson declaring the Uruguayan should never play for Liverpool again, it was an extraordinary day all round.
A largely unsavoury one too, in which the main consolations were negative ones: there was not, as Ferguson suggested there might have been, "a riot" and the players, for all the seething tensions in the United camp, managed to keep their emotions largely under control while a game of only two yellow cards was in progress.
At the full-time whistle Evra was no longer prepared to subdue his raw feelings, dancing all round the pitch waving his arms in delight. When he did so dangerously close to Suarez, with other Liverpool players threatening to offer a reprimand or more, the referee Phil Dowd stepped in quickly and sensibly to steer Evra away and hold him back until everyone else had disappeared down the tunnel, with yellow-jacketed stewards again well represented.
Amid all this mayhem a rather important football match broke out in which United, by virtue of two goals from a Merseysider, reversed the scoreline of the recent FA Cup tie, overtaking Manchester City at the top of the Premier League ahead of the latter's game at Aston Villa today. At Anfield, United had been undeserving losers, beaten by Dirk Kuyt's late goal with Evra at fault. This time they briefly lost concentration again, allowing Suarez of all people to halve what had looked a comfortable lead, earned by Wayne Rooney's two goals in three minutes at the start of the second half.
Right at the end it even took a fine save from the much scrutinised David de Gea – his only one of the game – to prevent the larceny of a draw. Suarez provided some of the visitors' better touches but it said much about them that Glen Johnson, the right-back, looked the most likely goalscorer.
Steven Gerrard, regularly reminded of how many League titles he has won (none) as opposed to Ryan Giggs (12), worked hard, but the equally industrious Jay Spearing was caught badly for the second goal, Jose Enrique was given a run-around by Antonio Valencia and from Stewart Downing and the substitute Andy Carroll there was no contribution.
News that the local constabulary had confiscated every copy of the "Red Issue" fanzine, considering its Suarez coverage to be inflammatory, was the first indication that this would be no ordinary day. The pre-match handshake was more carefully scrutinised than ever and ratcheted up the tension when Suarez ignored the outstretched hand of Evra, who tried to drag him back by the arm. Rio Ferdinand, next in line, then blanked Suarez in retaliation.
By half-time the latter pair were involved in what could have been a major talking point had there not been so many others. The Liverpool forward, starting a game for the first time since Christmas, evaded Evra's lunge and was clear when Ferdinand challenged him from behind, getting the finest of touches on the ball before bringing him down.
One fine shot by Johnson, cutting in from the right on to his left foot, was all that Liverpool had managed otherwise, whereas Pepe Reina had been forced to make an instinctive save by a header from Paul Scholes, six yards out and unmarked. In football terms it was an uneventful first 45 minutes, unlike the walk to the dressing-room, when Evra apparently tried to make his feelings known to Suarez but was prevented from doing so, after which police and stewards had to keep players apart.
Mercifully, two quick goals brought the game to life. First Giggs took an inswinging corner that was nudged on by Michael Carrick and volleyed in with a flourish for Rooney's 21st goal of the season. The 22nd arrived within three minutes, Spearing losing possession to Valencia, who set Rooney up for a comfortable finish. The England striker was offered an easier chance for a hat-trick as Scholes stepped over Valencia's pass, but in trying to take the shot with his right foot Rooney could only jab the ball wide.
Liverpool threw on Craig Bellamy, who was lively, and Carroll, who was not, quickly followed by Charlie Adam. In the 80th minute Carrick fouled Suarez and Ferdinand miscontrolled Adam's free-kick, allowing Suarez to throw the outcome into sudden uncertainty. Danny Welbeck spoilt another fine performance with a wild finish and so De Gea had to preserve the victory by touching Johnson's 25-yard drive over the bar. Unsavoury or not, the afternoon had at least finished with the right result.
Manchester Utd (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Carrick, Scholes; Valencia, Rooney, Giggs; Welbeck.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Jose Enrique; Henderson, Spearing (Carroll, 61); Kuyt (Adam, 75), Gerrard, Downing (Bellamy, 61); Suarez.
Referee Phil Dowd.
Man of the match Valencia (Manchester Utd).
Match rating 6/10.