By Greg Stobart at Anfield
Liverpool and Manchester United had to settle for a point each after a 1-1 draw between the great rivals at Anfield on Saturday.
A game that will not be remembered as a classic did not spark into life until Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard gave the hosts the lead with a free-kick in the 68th minute. United substitute Javier Hernandez then levelled with a header from close range nine minutes from time.
Sir Alex Ferguson will be the more content manager after he picked a surprisingly weak line-up, most notably leaving out Wayne Rooney as United looked to take the sting out of Liverpool after three defeats in a row at Anfield.
Here, we take a look at how and why the two sides cancelled each other out...
|DEFIANT DE GEA IS STARTING TO GROW
High-profile errors at the start of his Manchester United career prompted doubts over whether replacing Edwin Van der Sar with 20-year-old David De Gea was the right decision.
The Spaniard, however, is now growing into the United No.1 shirt – literally and figuratively – to prove why Sir Alex Ferguson spent £18.3 million on securing one of the best young goalkeepers in world football.
It would be pernickety to suggest De Gea still looked vulnerable under high balls given the role he played in securing a point for United. In the first half, he kept his concentration and stayed big to deny Luis Suarez while he made two late athletic saves to first keep out Dirk Kuyt at the back post and then claw away Jordan Henderson's volley.
“I saw in the press that De Gea has struggled, but he certainly didn't struggle today, he made a couple of fantastic saves,” said Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish after the game.
|UNITED'S TACTICAL FLEXIBILITY
Sir Alex sprung a huge surprise in his team selection by dropping Wayne Rooney because his star striker was “devastated” by the three-match ban that will keep him out of the group stage of Euro 2012.
Yet it wasn't just Rooney who was snubbed as Javier Hernandez, Nani and Anderson all joined him on the substitutes' bench as Sir Alex picked a starting line-up predominantly to stop Liverpool, who had won the previous three matches between the sides at Anfield. United lacked bite and fight in those defeats so Sir Alex shored up the midfield by picking a defensively minded team, including Phil Jones in midfield, to stifle Liverpool and cut off the supply to Suarez.
From a tactical point of view, it worked, and Ferguson was able to bring his attacking players off the bench to make United far more of an attacking threat in the last 20 minutes. It paid off as Hernandez stole in to nod home the equaliser nine minutes from time.
Dalglish, for his part, picked arguably his strongest starting XI and didn't have the options at his disposal to be tactically flexible. Jordan Henderson performed well as a substitute but Liverpool didn't have any obvious options to up their game.
|GERRARD SLOTS IN WITH GOALSCORING COMEBACK
It has been a frustrating six months for Steven Gerrard. The Liverpool captain has barely featured in the Kenny Dalglish era due to a series of injury problems, most recently a troublesome groin that required an operation in the summer.
He has been eased back into action with cameo substitute appearances but returned to the starting line-up on Saturday to take a place in midfield as Dalglish opted for a 4-5-1 formation.
Gerrard made the comeback he would have dreamed of by opening the scoring in the 68th minute with a free-kick from 20 yards that went through the United wall. As he raised five fingers towards the Kop, the Reds fans remembered what they have been missing in the absence of their talismanic skipper.
He looked a little ring rusty in the early stages but his quality was evident and there were signs that he could form a productive understanding with Suarez. The Uruguayan led the line as the focal point of Liverpool's attack, supported by a balanced midfield. A high tempo, scrappy game against their bitter rivals is not the game to judge how Liverpool will work following Gerrard's return to the side but the signs were encouraging.
|SUAREZ BATTLES TO MAKE HIS MARK
In a game of graft rather than subtlety, Suarez stood out as the crux of everything Liverpool did going forward. As the ball bounced off shins and players steamed into tackles, Suarez's intelligence on and off the ball always looked like Liverpool's most likely route to open up the United defence.
The 24-year-old wasn't quite at his best but he didn't give United's defenders a moment's rest. He twisted, turned, dropped deep and pulled wide in an attempt to manoeuvre the hosts into attacking positions.
Suarez was involved in the only highlight of the first half when he forced De Gea into a smart stop after trickery in the penalty box. In one-on-one situations, he is exceptionally skilful and on a couple of occasions it looked like he might repeat his amazing footwork in Liverpool's 3-1 win over United last season.
Suarez did not have the quality of service he might have hoped for – particularly from wide positions – but he was always linking up play and there were signs of an understanding with Gerrard.
|FERGUSON LOOKS AT THE BIGGER PICTURE
Gary Neville was revealing in the television studio after the match when he intimated Sir Alex Ferguson has a starting line-up in his mind for matches as early as four games in advance.
The Scot described this clash as the the biggest in English football yet still fielded a weakened team, content to take a point at the start of a big week for the club. On Tuesday, the Red Devils face a crucial trip to Romania to face Otelul Galati in the Champions League while next Sunday they take on rivals and Premier League leaders Manchester City at Old Trafford.
True vindication of Ferguson's team selection – most notably his decision to rest Rooney – will be if United can win both of those games. Rooney, Hernandez and Nani are all likely to start in the Manchester derby, which Ferguson must now consider a more important fixture than the Liverpool game.
The Premier League title is likely to be won in Manchester and Ferguson carefully thinks about his squad and the players' freshness as he plots how to win titles and trophies.