Liverpool: Manchester United shared the points and the taunts with bitter rivals Liverpool as Javier Hernandez’s late header cancelled out Steven Gerrard’s opener in a 1-1 draw on Saturday that put the brakes on the Premier League champions’ title defence.
Liverpool captain Gerrard marked his first start for seven months with a 68th-minute free kick that broke the deadlock in a game where the action on the pitch had until then failed to match the passion in the stands.
The goal prompted United to bring on all the firepower they had left on the bench, two of whom combined for the 81st-minute equaliser as Hernandez nodded in from a Nani corner to ensure a lively finale at a high tempo that was not there before.
“I don’t think they really threatened until they scored the goal, but when they scored the game opened up,” United manager Alex Ferguson — whose team is unbeaten in 11 games this season and have 20 points from eight league matches — told Sky Sports.
The excitement until Gerrard’s goal had been off the pitch, where a plane trailing a banner reading “Bonjour 19X” flew over Anfield before kick-off as United fans revelled in last year’s 19th English league title, which broke Liverpool’s record.
The homemade posters and noisy chants were along the same lines, but the Liverpool faithful returned with jibes of their own, including flags depicting five European cups reading “That’s what we call history” in a dig at their 5-3 advantage.
Ferguson billed contests between United and Liverpool as the “game of the season” in the build-up, but he can not have been talking about the quality of play that was on show in the first hour at Anfield.
Counterpart Kenny Dalglish’s assessment of “sterile” was closer to the mark. Both sides had opted for a lone striker, making for an overcrowded midfield that choked any chance of a fluid game.
Liverpool had the better chances in the opening period, with Luis Suarez — architect of the 3-1 victory in this fixture last season — twice finding a way through only to be let down by his final touch.
United, whose title defence started at blistering pace with goals galore, have stalled of late, and here barely tested Pepe Reina in the opening hour as Park Ji-sung and Phil Jones went wide with half chances.
The game came to life when United centre back Rio Ferdinand tripped Charlie Adam just outside the area, and Gerrard, who has been out since March with a groin injury that needed surgery, stepped forward to take the kick.
His right-footed strike whizzed through the United wall between Danny Welbeck and Ryan Giggs and low into the net to trigger wild celebrations in the Kop and a double substitution for United with the arrival of Nani and Wayne Rooney.
A few minutes later Hernandez came on for Jones, who had been playing in an unfamiliar midfield role that made him look every bit the out-of-position defender he was, and the Mexican goal poacher pulled one of his specials out of the bag.
Nani’s corner was flicked on by Welbeck and Hernandez arrived to head in his third league goal of the season.
“His goal scoring is unbelievable, that boy, he’s just got that scoring touch,” said Ferguson, who perhaps had in mind United’s demanding games this week when he left key players on the bench. On Tuesday they visit Otelul Galati in the Champions League needing a win to kick-start their campaign after two draws, and next Sunday they host English title rivals Manchester City.
Ferguson’s side had to hang on for the point as Liverpool pressed for a late winner, with Dirk Kuyt’s low shot well saved by De Gea and substitute Jordan Henderson forcing a good stop in the dying moments and heading over the bar in stoppage time.
“We could have had (all three points),” Dalglish told a news conference after the game, which marked the first anniversary of the takeover by Fenway Sports Group that has led to an improvement in the club’s fortunes.
“It is a real indication when you get in the dressing room afterwards and they are disappointed that they have drawn 1-1 with Manchester United — that says how far they’ve come.”