United are through to the FA Cup fourth round as a Ryan Giggs penalty after just two minutes ensured victory in an action-packed, end-to-end encounter with ten-man Liverpool.
Giggs’ spot-kick quelled Liverpool’s early optimism, while their own captain Steven Gerrard all but extinguished it with a reckless two-footed challenge on Michael Carrick that rightly earned him a red card after 32 minutes.
Liverpool – remarkably given their form and the turmoil on and off the pitch that has engulfed their season – arrived at Old Trafford on a wave of optimism. Roy Hodgson’s sacking and Kenny Dalglish's subsequent return to the club the day previously, ensured the 9,000 visiting fans had plenty to sing about before the match. But they would soon be silenced.
United, on the other hand, have started 2011 on a high, top of the league and hopeful of what the year might bring – not least the prospect of a 19th league title. But while Sir Alex Ferguson was keen to avoid the shock of last season’s FA Cup third round exit at the hands of local rivals Leeds, he had to contend with a cluster of first-choice absentees. Edwin van der Sar was still missing after suffering with a virus, while Wayne Rooney’s ankle problem meant he was not risked either. Worse still, Nemanja Vidic was a late drop-out – United’s influential skipper replaced by Jonny Evans, who would stand up to the demands of this fixture admirably.
Dalglish entered the arena like an excited child expectant of what the next 90 minutes might hold, but Liverpool’s giddy optimism dissipated after barely 90 seconds when United went ahead from the spot. Darren Fletcher’s lofted pass picked out Dimitar Berbatov’s run into the right channel. The Bulgarian plucked the ball expertly out of the air and turned past Daniel Agger, who stuck his leg out. Although there the contact may have been slight,