In an emotionally-charged match on Merseyside, Steven Gerrard's volleyed opener was cancelled out by Rafael's equalizer before the Dutchman scored the winning penalty.
Jonjo Shelvey’s red card with six minutes before halftime threatened to derail the attacking dominance that Brendan Rodgers’ side possessed for the first 40 minutes, but Steven Gerrard’s volley propelled them into the lead in the first minute of the second half.
The visitors responded with an immediate equalizer, with right back Rafael curling a left-footed corker into the top corner from the right inside the box.
The 10 men of Liverpool continued to battle, but with 10 minutes left, Robin van Persie ended United’s recent poor form from penalties by converting a spot kick after Antonio Valencia drew a controversial call to give Sir Alex Ferguson’s side a win and leave the hosts stranded in the relegation zone.
The theme before the game was unity: the two managers conducting a joint interview, and Patrice Evra and Luis Suarez shaking hands despite their embittered history. But on the pitch and in the stands the passionate rivalry was as fierce as ever.
Buoyed by a rousing rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ in memory of the 96 football fans who died at Hillsborough 23 years ago after the club had finally been absolved of blame for the incident, Liverpool was the stronger team following kickoff.
Suarez forced Anders Lindegaard into an early save from close range, then an unmarked Gerrard made the side netting ripple with a low shot from a cleverly worked corner. The Reds’ attacking continued as United’s passing accuracy plummeted. Suarez was at the center of most moves and gave center backs Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans a torrid time.
The home side suffered a setback on the 39-minute mark, though, when Shelvey was sent off for a lunging, studs-up challenge on Evans.
If any Reds supporters were worried that their team would lessen their grip on the game, those fears was temporarily dispelled when Gerrard chested down 15 yards from goal and rifled a volley home soon after halftime, cuing scenes of jubilation around Anfield.
However, Rafael showed why United should never be underestimated regardless of a poor performance, curling a shot into the top left-hand corner to level the scoring five minutes later. Suarez, an energetic force throughout, forced a super save to Lindegaard’s right with a low effort not long after and substitute Suso fired marginally over inside the 18-yard box.
The home side’s hopes were dashed when Glen Johnson was ruled to have clattered into the back of Valencia on a United counterattack, leading to a penalty in the visitors’ favor. Having missed from the spot at Southampton earlier this season, Van Persie made no mistake in scoring United’s eventual winner by driving to the right as goalkeeper Pepe Reina got a hand on it but could not tip it wide.
At the other end, Martin Kelly was gifted a gilt-edged chance to score the Reds’ second, but his header inside the box from Johnson’s cross was headed wide by the right back.