By Wayne Veysey at Old Trafford
It was not quite the comeback Luis Suarez would have dreamed of.
Had his sweetly-struck 72nd minute free-kick not come back off the crossbar after evading David De Gea’s grasp then he could have been reflecting on Thursday morning upon a brilliant equalising goal.
But the only goal celebration of Suarez’s first Liverpool match in five months was led by another nimble striker, in the shape of Chicharito, who punished Liverpool for some calamitous set-piece defending with a wonderfully-taken volley.
Suarez led the Merseysiders’ late fightback in a manner that is heartening for those worried about his commitment to the club following his failed attempt to engineer a transfer in the summer.
The manner in which he threw himself into conjuring the equaliser suggested his appetite for battle and addiction to football remains undimmed.
The Uruguayan also appeared every bit as dejected as his team-mates that Liverpool were not able to capitalise on some promising positions to at least take the match into extra-time.
The celebrations from the Manchester United players and supporters at the final whistle demonstrated how much this 1-0 win meant to a full house at Old Trafford following Sunday's humiliating defeat at Manchester City.
Liverpool-United fixtures need little elevating, even in the early rounds of the Capital One Cup, but the promise of Suarez's return to action had imbued the clubs' second meeting in a month with added significance.
Before kick-off, Suarez was given the red-carpet treatment by the 7,200-strong band of travelling supporters. They chanted his name, not quite en masse, but with enough conviction to suggest that he has been forgiven for the biting, the baggage and the blatant flirting with rival clubs.
The Uruguayan responded by high-fiving and hugging his team-mates, although he did not appear to return the applause.
Unsurprisingly for a player whose only competitive football since April has been a handful of internationals, Suarez initially appeared rusty and hesitant.
The ideas and movement were there, but the touch was not. Nevertheless, the striker, who formed a two-pronged attack with Daniel Sturridge in a new-look 3-4-1-2 formation, grew into the game as it wore on.
Without being especially fluent, Liverpool had spells of domination in both halves and Suarez was comfortably their most dangerous attacking force.
Naturally, he was jeered every time he was on the ball. Naturally, he did not seem bothered in the slightest.
Jinking between defenders, pulling centre-backs out of position and always playing on a temperamental knife-edge, it was like Suarez had never been away.
|7/2||Luis Suarez is 7/2 with William Hill to score the first goal against Sunderland
There is surely not a single Liverpool sympathiser who would have not been delighted to see him back.
He has let them down and frazzled with their emotions while not uttering one word to say how proud he will be to represent the club for the rest of the season, surely his last at Anfield.
But he remains spellbinding to watch. For drama and the sheer capacity for the unexpected, few modern footballers can match Suarez.
That is why Liverpool’s fans chanted his name before kick-off and urged him to conjure something decisive every time he was anywhere near the ball.
For the club and their marquee player, the basis of their collaboration is more easily defined – they are like the couple who know all romance in the relationship is over but remain together for practical purposes.
It is a temporary, mutually beneficial situation which Liverpool hope can invigorate their quest to win a trophy (although the FA Cup is now the sole realistic target) or finish in the top four.
Of more immediate concern is how impotent Sturridge looked with a strike partner alongside him. Brendan Rodgers appeared to have tweaked his formation specifically to accommodate the two 'nine-and-a-halves', as he called them, but the English striker, who has begun the season so impressively, seemed diminished by sharing rather than spearheading the attack.
Getting the best out of two of his key men, especially without the injured Philippe Coutinho behind them, will be one of Rodgers’ main dilemmas in the coming weeks.
But, at least, he can reflect that Suarez is fit, fighting and in fine fettle.
The road to redemption has begun.