Sturridge's third goal in three games clinches win for Liverpool
They came to salute the anniversary of a Liverpool legend – and left celebrating the birthday of a striker wasting no time in etching his own name in Anfield folklore.
On the eve of what would have been Bill Shankly’s 100th birthday, Brendan Rodgers saw his side register the most significant victory of his tenure by leaning on many of the qualities that helped the Scot transform what was an ailing club.
Along with one that is fast becoming a regular sight for Liverpool supporters.
For the third successive Premier League match, Daniel Sturridge netted the only goal to maintain the Anfield outfit’s 100% start to the season with a first top-flight victory over bitter North West rivals Manchester United since March 2011.
Sturridge, 24 yesterday, now has 16 goals in 20 appearances since arriving from Chelsea in January.
None, though, have been met with the deafening roar that greeted his fourth-minute strike that ultimately ensured Liverpool their best start to a campaign since 1994.
They ended that season in fourth place. And the early signs suggest Rodgers’ men are determined to at least replicate such an achievement and seal Champions League qualification.
Having won only one of 14 games against the top-eight finishers last season, this was a victory to be cherished, not just as it opened up a five-point lead on the champions.
This wasn’t Liverpool at their best. As at Aston Villa the previous weekend, they were forced to dig deep for long periods and, on the rare occasion their rearguard was breached, goalkeeper Simon Mignolet stood firm to earn only a second shut-out against United in 16 top-flight games.
In keeping clean sheets in each of this first three league games, Mignolet has now matched the record of Billy McOwen in 1893 and Pepe Reina in 2005.
The heroes for Liverpool, though, were in front of the Belgian. Glen Johnson paid for a series of heroic blocks and tackles by leaving the stadium on crutches while Daniel Agger, who played a part in Sturridge’s winner, helped keep Robin van Persie in check.
Outshining all, however, was Martin Skrtel. Making his first appearance of the season in place of the stricken Kolo Toure, and with prospective new centre-back signings Tiago Ilori and Mamadou Sakho watching from the directors’ box, the Slovakian posted a timely reminder of his wares.
Indeed, it was Skrtel’s performance in the 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford in January that saw him lose his regular starting role.
So continues the hoodoo for David Moyes, who failed to win in 12 visits to Anfield as Everton manager.
Rodgers hinted beforehand of a change of attitude at Old Trafford given the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson.
But while United still possess depth in their ranks – compare and contrast the two benches yesterday – they lacked the quality and, yes, belief to prise open Liverpool’s defence, the visiting midfield often outmuscled by Lucas Leiva, Steven Gerrard and the busy Jordan Henderson.
Anybody fearing a chess match similar to United’s drab stalemate against Chelsea at Old Trafford last Monday had those preconceptions blown away by a fearsome opening.
Anfield was still becoming accustomed to the sight of Moyes standing in the United dugout when Liverpool, hustling their visitors from the first whistle, went ahead after only four minutes from a corner earned by goalscorer Sturridge.
From Gerrard’s right-wing delivery, Agger beat Rio Ferdinand to head goalwards and Sturridge, having retreated unattended from the goalline, glanced the ball beyond Tom Cleverly, who had bizarrely elected to duck.
The stadium exploded. Yet it was United who reacted strongest, despite missing Wayne Rooney, the absent striker having suffered a cut on the head Moyes was convinced he had now got right after the ongoing speculation of a move to Chelsea.
Van Persie struck an ambitious overhead kick too high and then, from Ashley Young’s inswinging corner, neither he nor Danny Welbeck could provide the finishing touch.
With Liverpool’s midfield temporarily struggling to track runners from deep, Welbeck ghosted into a goalscoring shot beyond Skrtel only for Johnson to produce a fine block to deny his eventual shot.
United, though, began to lose their cool as Liverpool reimposed their authority. A flurry of bookings followed before the interval, culminating in van Persie going through Agger and initiating a spat that continued through to the teams walking off at half-time.
But the visitors, disrupted by Phil Jones hobbling off, were galvanised immediately after the interval, with Liverpool forced to dig deep.
Skrtel and Johnson again threw themselves at the ball to block shots from van Persie and Young but, other than clutching a glanced Ryan Giggs header from a corner, Mignolet was well protected.
Indeed, the Belgian’s first real action came with 13 minutes remaining when United substitute Nani wriggled free on the edge of the area and fired in an effort the Liverpool goalkeeper leapt to his left to beat out.
A stretching van Persie fired wide having been played into space by Javier Hernandez but the nearest either side came in an elongated injury time was when substitute Raheem Sterling drew a fine save from David de Gea.
Early days, of course. But Rodgers will know his side, with only one defeat in 15 Premier League games, are on the right track. To quote the inscription on the Shankly statue that stands outside the Kop, they are making the people happy again.
LIVERPOOL (4-2-3-1): Mignolet; Johnson (Wisdom 79), Skrtel, Agger, Enrique; Lucas, Gerrard; Henderson, Aspas (Sterling 60), Coutinho (Alberto 84); Sturridge. Subs: Jones, Ibe, Kelly, Flanagan. BOOKINGS: Aspas (unsporting behaviour) and Lucas (foul).
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-4-1-1): de Gea; Jones (Valencia 37), Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Giggs (Hernandez 73), Carrick, Cleverly, Young (Nani 63); Welbeck; van Persie. Subs: Lindergaard, Anderson, Smalling, Buttner. BOOKINGS: Cleverly, van Persie, Carrick and Young (all fouls).
REFEREE: Andre Marriner.