Rooney 47' 50'
The worst possible result. Not just a loss, a deserved loss – self-inflicted thanks to a feeble 30 minutes after the restart – but continued, probably increased, focus on the Suarez-Evra contretemps thanks to each acting like spoiled children. Fantastic. Just what everyone wants and needs.
Handshakes – irrelevant, archaic, unnecessary damned handshakes – set the tone. As a Liverpool fan, I'm constitutionally obligated to mention that it's slightly (and slightly is all I'll countenance, even when I'm straining this hard to present both sides) understandable that one might not want to shake another's hand when he thinks the latter is a liar who got him unfairly suspended. But Suarez ignoring Evra's hand was childish, Evra then making a scene by grabbing Suarez's arm was childish, and Ferdinand then snubbing Suarez was childish. It both foreshadowed forthcoming scenes and reinvigorated the media's delight in this narrative. Exactly what this match, Liverpool, and football in general didn't need.
As an aside, Phil Dowd did a masterful job today. Only two players saw yellow, Downing and Carrick, both deserved for tackles that halted attacks. At least where it relates to the actual football, the game was fairly tame and fairly played compared to this match's usual fire and brimstone. It's just beyond a pity we can't say the same about non-football idiocy.
Otherwise, there was little to write home about in the first half. Johnson had a couple of early chances, both with his left foot after cutting inside – the first tamely saved, the second pulled narrowly wide of the far post – but United increasingly controlled the game by controlling midfield. With Scholes as the fulcrum, United passed around Spearing, while Valencia was a constant threat down Liverpool's left. Gerrard had to play deeper and deeper to compensate, increasing Liverpool's disconnect in attack. Ferdinand and Evans marshaled Suarez with midfielders adding little to the attack; Kuyt at least did well tracking back, but Downing provided absolutely no benefit, looking less and less confident and more and more depressingly hapless with each step.
Still, United rarely looked like breaching Liverpool's back four. Valencia beat Enrique once, but Rafael's left-footed shot – like Liverpool, from a fullback getting forward – was too close to Reina. The best chance of the half came when Johnson couldn't close down Giggs' cross as Scholes lost Spearing, but the newly-unretired player headed straight at Reina from six yards. Other, Agger and Skrtel kept the dangerous Rooney and Welback under tight watch while the full-backs stayed solid.
Then came five minutes of madness to start the second half, United two-up before the 50th minute after Liverpool twice shot themselves in the foot. First, when marking a corner, Henderson jumped in front of the better-placed Gerrard, somehow perfectly flicking-on for Rooney to smartly volley from close range. Less than three minutes later, Spearing handed the ball off to Valencia after Enrique had stolen it back, allowing three United players to run at Skrtel. Valencia put Rooney through before Johnson could retreat, slotting past Reina for his brace.
Liverpool didn't look anywhere near scoring until a set play consolation in the 80th, after Dalglish had made all three changes. Confidence clearly circled the toilet, expected but still infuriating, as United olé'd passes around the pitch. The home side seemed far more likely to get the third, as Rooney toe-poked wide after a flowing move, Enrique crucially cut out a Giggs center, and Welbeck's curler from 12 yards out was fortunately deflected to Reina.
Carroll and Bellamy replacing Spearing and Downing, by far Liverpool's two worst performers, added some semblance of coherence, but it wasn't until Adam came on for Kuyt that Liverpool created its first clear-cut chance since Johnson's early efforts. Yes, it was from a set play, won by Suarez, converted by Suarez, and partly due to a Ferdinand error. And had Adam started – today was the first league match he hadn't started – Liverpool might have been even more open in midfield. It's hard to imagine that's possible, but still. Regardless, Charlie Adam creates chances. No matter Liverpool's horrific conversion rate, chances are still somewhat necessary.
Liverpool had a couple of door-slightly-ajar opportunities for an unlikely equalizer, but Suarez's blast from Carroll's knockdown unfortunately deflected off the #9, De Gea tipped Johnson's straight-arrow cannon over the crossbar, and Suarez nearly got on the end of an Adam chip deep in injury time, but could only head over from an offside position. Rendering his earlier goal a consolation and this one of the more depressing losses of the season.
Finally, finishing as we started, Evra's wild, World Cup celebrations after the whistle continued into a dance directly in front of Suarez, which led to yet another half-baked scrum. Again, Dowd attempted to quickly and sensibly pulled the Frenchman away, but damage was done, the narrative further reinforced. This isn't about football anymore, to everyone's detriment.
The feared, unnecessary off-field nonsense will partially obscure Liverpool's poor play, especially those 30-35 minutes after the interval. Henderson replacing Adam seemed a good idea prior to the match, fitter and full of running and better able to counter quickly. Downing instead of Bellamy was more a matter of faith than evidence, but keeping Bellamy's pace in reserve made some sense. Neither gambit worked, nor did the hope that Spearing could hold the middle in place of Lucas. True, this is the first match where he's looked wholly out of depth, but he still looked wholly out of depth. Agger and Skrtel were Agger and Skrtel, Reina could do little about the goals, Johnson and Enrique played well (the latter after a shaky first 10-15 minutes), and Gerrard was restrained having to compensate for his midfield partners. Liverpool did manage something of a fight back, eventually. Those are the on-field positives. All of them.
But, as much as I'd rather not, we have to mention the off-field. For the first time, Suarez's petulant irascibility out-weighted the benefits he brings to the team. And yes, I still say 'for the first time' knowing he just served a ban for what he called Evra in the reserve fixture. And being well aware he scored Liverpool's lone goal. The narrative goes away with a handshake. In theory, the furor dies with a handshake. No handshake sets the tone for Evra's response, Ferdinand's response, a half-time brouhaha, and Evra's taunting, inciting post-match celebrations. All of which will be examined in nanometer detail over the next week. So easily avoided.
Yes, the handshake was incidental to this result, a game Liverpool didn't deserve to win. Which isn't wholly unexpected given previous results on this ground. But now Liverpool as a club will be raked over the coals, drowned in the mud, yet again. And that's unforgivably worse than any loss.