Manchester United's war with football's match officials intensified yesterday as the club's chief executive David Gill instigated a heated exchange with referees' chief Mike Riley after Nani was carried from the field during a humiliating 3-1 Anfield defeat.
Gill remonstrated with Riley at half-time, minutes after Jamie Carragher's challenge on the Portuguese winger – a tackle that clearly warranted a red card – and Gill was still furious about the failure to send off Carragher after the match had finished.
Riley later played down the incident but United's feelings about the challenge on Nani leave little to the imagination. The 25-year-old, who was crying as he lay on the pitch, limped slowly out of Anfield last night with a very deep gash to his lower right shin, although he did not require crutches. Carragher earlier went in to the United dressing room to apologise.
It is two years since United last lost consecutive games – one of those being a 4-1 defeat to Liverpool at Old Trafford – and they bore the hallmarks last night of a side wilting under the pressure of a tense Premier League finale, manager Sir Alex Ferguson refusing to discuss the match with the TV rights holder or his club's in-house station. The Premier League is unlikely to fine him for his failure to speak to Sky Sports before or after yesterday's game, taking the view that rights holders must register a complaint before they take action. Sky do not tend to complain, for fear of exacerbating a fragile relationship with the United manager yet further.
Ferguson will appear before a Football Association independent regulatory commission by 25 March, having denied an improper conduct charge for claiming Martin Atkinson was biased in his officiating of United's midweek loss to Chelsea.
The Premier League leaders preparations for the game were damaged 24 hours before kick off when Rio Ferdinand failed a fitness test and it was he who made the only pubic comment on a result which leaves them three points clear of Arsenal, with an extra game played. "Bad result today. No excuses," Ferdinand tweeted.
The Liverpool manager, Kenny Dalglish, whose side climbed to sixth in the table, warned against rushing to judgment. "I think Manchester United are top, aren't they?" he said. "I think they are the benchmark for everybody. They are top of the league so, yes, they are still the benchmark. Everybody would want to be in the position Manchester United are in."
Dalglish, who could rejoice in an exhilarating display from £22.6m January signing Luis Suarez, declared in midweek that the gap between these two clubs is less than the 18 points currently separating them suggests.
When Dalglish was able to bring on £35m new signing Andy Carroll with 16 minutes to go, Liverpool certainly seemed a club with more at their disposal than United, who have now lost three successive league games at Anfield.
But Dalglish, who now has five wins to Ferguson's 10 in the managerial matches between them, warned: "The closer you get to the top the more difficult it is to close the gap.
"Going from 20th to sixth is not as difficult as sixth to first. The higher we go the more difficult the step up is but the owners are determined to move the club forward within reason and they'll do their best to provide the funds. The players out there today have done themselves no harm whatsoever."
Dalglish, who yesterday suggested that Liverpool were adhering to the FA's Respect campaign, even if no one else was, made light of the flashpoints which should have seen both sides reduced to 10 men.
"I thought the referee had an easy game to manage – apart from a couple of incidents," he said. "But the more important thing for me was the quality of the football that was played. There has been enough rubbish written anyway about other things – so we will concentrate on ourselves anyway."
Kuyt, the first Liverpool player to score a hat-trick against United since Peter Beardsley in 1990 – during Dalglish's first stint as manager – thanked Suarez for his brilliant run that set up the first goal of the afternoon. "He's a great player and played brilliantly and created two of the three goals I scored, so I am grateful for that," Kuyt said. "They were quite easy goals. I used to score these goals in Holland when I was playing more as a striker, but they all count and I am more than happy to take them.
"There was a lot of confidence in the team. We also had the belief that we can compete with the best. We showed that against Chelsea and have now shown that against Manchester United. We now have to compete against the other sides."