Johnson Carragher Skrtel Aurelio
Meireles Gerrard Lucas Maxi
Kuyt 34' 39' 65'
Other than a late consolation and yet another unfortunate Aurelio injury, that was absolutely perfect. Just perfect. As if the universe would allow anything else on Dalglish's birthday weekend.
No matter what frailties Liverpool have had this season – and there have been more than a few – they've often upped their game against top opposition, especially at Anfield. Liverpool were the brighter side from the word go, attacking United, keeping possession. Meireles nearly put Suarez through within two minutes, while Maxi and the Uruguayan blazed efforts off target soon after. It's cliché, but the home side were hungrier, and it was immediately evident.
Berbatov's 20-yard blast off the outside of the post in the 16th, conjured from nothing, given space by retreating defenders, reminded of United's perpetual threat. Aurelio's injury, forced off in the 24th, could have been a turning point on the back of the Bulgarian's effort. But, following a bedding in period for five to ten minutes with neither side on top, the change actually helped Liverpool. Kyrgiakos was the replacement, shifting Carragher to right back and Johnson to the left. The big Greek repeatedly headed out crosses, blunting United's main threat.
Following a couple of corners, Luis Suarez single-handedly made the breakthrough, regardless of the fact that Kuyt's name is on the score sheet. The Uruguayan picked up possession in the box and danced between Rafael and Smalling before beating Brown then Carrick, passing across the face of goal for Kuyt' to tap in. Four United defenders left completely befuddled, and Liverpool with a player able to torch static markers by dribbling. It's been a long time coming.
The opener unsurprisingly knocked United back. Maxi forced a close-range save from van der Sar before Liverpool were two up within five minutes thanks to Nani's moment of madness. Suarez's right-sided cross was easily headed away, but Nani headed the second ball back towards his own goal, allowing Kuyt to steal in for a point-blank header past a wrong-footed keeper. Fortune smiled on the good guys for 90 straight minutes.
The final five minutes of the half was when we got the usual contentious controversy. First, Carragher could have seen red for a blistering tackle on Nani, who started a hullabaloo before crumpling to the ground, eventually replaced by Chicharito. Seconds later, a frustrated Rafael replicated Carragher's rashness, diving in two-footed on Lucas. Once again, both sides ran to the referee swinging handbags. All we can ask for from referees is consistency, and Dowd gave similarly terrible tackles yellows. In the last meeting, Howard Webb ignored Rafael's two-footed ankle-breaker before sending Gerrard off for a lesser offense.
Liverpool started the second half where they left off. In the 49th, a flowing move from Suarez to Meireles ended when van der Sar barely stopped the Portuguese midfielder from picking out Gerrard at the near post. Half-chances from Chicharito and Giggs – the former sliding into meet Giggs' cross in front of Kyrgiakos but shooting high and wide and the latter blasting over from the top of the box after being picked out by Rooney – prefaced United's best opening of the game. Taking advantage of Liverpool slow to regroup after a corner, Rooney crossed from the left, Chicharito flicked across goal from the far post, and Berbatove dove in to make contact, only prevented by Meireles' presence on the line.
Three minutes later, Liverpool had three, Kuyt's first hat-trick for the club and only the third hat-trick scored against United since the the Premier League's inception. Kuyt won the free kick 25 yards from goal, and surprisingly, Gerrard let the ever-dangerous Suarez take the set piece. The Uruguayan blast's required a diving save from van der Sar, but Kuyt was the first – and only – to react, for a second tap-in. His three goals came from a combined two yards out. They all count just as much as 30-yard screamers.
From there, Liverpool were happy to soak up pressure, with today's joy amplified by Carroll's debut in the in the 74th. His first action was a win a towering header from a free kick, shooting just too close to the keeper. Five minutes later, the giant striker cleverly knocked a long ball down for Kuyt, who volleyed over from the top of box – his only off-target shot of the day. Four would be asking too much. Let's not get greedy.
Asking for a clean sheet was evidently too greedy as well. Chicharito popped up for a consolation deep into injury time, heading in Giggs' cross after starting the move from deep and losing Gerrard with his clever run into the six-yard box. That and Aurelio's injury were today's only blemishes. I guess that'll do.
It'd be impossible to pick a man of the match if not for one player's superlative performance. Every player was excellent, but Suarez was different class. The defense had none of the maddening lapses which doomed the last match, led by Kyrgiakos and Johnson's flawless displays. Meireles and Maxi were fluid, busy, and clever, with the formation as much a 4-2-2-2 as a 4-4-1-1. Lucas was amazing in his usual holding role, again upping his game against the likes of United or Chelsea, while Gerrard was disciplined and intelligent as his midfield partner. Kuyt's hat-trick obviously earns the headlines.
But Suarez was something else. Liverpool's lacked a player of his ilk for far too long. Perpetual motion and a perpetual threat. Able to dribble and dance through infinitesimal openings and more than willing to run at defenders. I still have no clue how he set up the first goal, he had a big part in the third, and he started the attack which led to the second. He was at the center of everything in attack and still tracked back as needed. I don't have the vocabulary to do his match justice.
But, as is necessary, everyone played their part in today's win. Today, as in both wins over Chelsea, Liverpool showed just how good this team can be. And, arguably more important, just how resilient this team can be, which is a credit to the backroom staff. Agger and Kelly's absence, coupled with Aurelio's injury, should have been massive setbacks. But they weren't. Liverpool never lost hope or ambition and played to its full potential. That, more than anything else, bodes well for the future.