Advantage Liverpool, and a healthy one at that, yet it would have been game, set and match against Manchester United but for the heroics of goalkeeper David de Gea.
Daniel Sturridge’s questionable first-half penalty and a close-range strike by Roberto Firmino, following an awful mistake by United’s Michael Carrick, ensured that Liverpool will travel to Old Trafford for next Thursday’s Europa League round-of-16 second leg with a commanding 2-0 lead.
But it could have been five or six, had it not been for De Gea’s catalogue of crucial saves on a night when the poverty of Louis van Gaal’s United was exposed by a confident and energetic Liverpool.
United mustered just one shot on target all night, but Liverpool’s failure to convert at least one more of their chances means that they will travel to Manchester with the tie still alive – if only just.
There have clearly been more significant encounters between these two clubs since the first of 194 previous meetings in April 1894.
Liverpool and United have fought out FA Cup and League Cup finals, battled for points at the business end of the league and almost contested a Champions League final in Moscow in 2008, when only a narrow Chelsea victory against Liverpool in the last four prevented English football’s traditional superpowers facing each other in the biggest game of all.
So a last-16 clash in the Europa League was some way down the pecking order, but with both clubs attempting to emerge from periods of transition, the outcome of this tie will only boost the victors and leave the losers searching for answers and a route back to the glory days.
Perhaps a yearning for the days when they were kings prompted Liverpool to turn their pre-match soundtrack into some kind of 1980s party, with “Eye of the Tiger” and “The Final Countdown” being boomed around Anfield.
If only the likes of Souness, Dalglish, Hansen and Rush could be dusted off and wheeled out too, Jürgen Klopp’s plans for a Liverpool revolution would be far further down the line.
The same applies to United under Van Gaal. Mounting injuries and poor summer recruitment left the Dutchman turning once again to youngsters Guillermo Varela and Marcus Rashford in a contest which has always been about giants of the game at the peak of their powers rather than callow kids with nothing more than raw promise.
To that end, Van Gaal restored a fit-again Marouane Fellaini to the starting line-up for the first time in over a month, simply to add brawn and muscle to an otherwise timid team. But for all of Fellaini’s nuisance qualities, he is no creator and United lacked the cutting edge and guile to trouble Liverpool in a first half dominated by the home side.
Rashford’s volley over the crossbar at the Kop end from Memphis Depay’s cross after just 14 seconds was as close as United came during the opening period.
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal at full-time
At the other end Liverpool were left to curse De Gea for keeping the score down after Sturridge’s 19th-minute penalty opener.
Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo took his time before pointing to the spot following Depay’s tug on Nathaniel Clyne, but it was a soft penalty. Sturridge calmly beat De Gea to give Liverpool the lead.
The opener raised the decibel levels inside Anfield, with the home fans sensing the opportunity to urge their team to a crucial second. Liverpool poured forward and Sturridge picked out the unmarked Philippe Coutinho at the far post on 23 minutes, only for De Gea to smother the Brazilian’s close-range shot.
Then on 31 minutes a slip by Chris Smalling gifted Sturridge a chance to score his second. Once again De Gea came to United’s rescue, as he did when producing a point-blank save from Adam Lallana four minutes before half-time.
United’s season has been disappointing enough with the Spaniard in their ranks, so it does not bear thinking about how badly it may have turned out had his aborted move to Real Madrid gone through last summer.
With United finding it so difficult to threaten Liverpool, Van Gaal reverted to 3-5-2 at the start of the second period, withdrawing Rashford and installing Carrick at centre-half. Daley Blind moved to left wing-back, with Marcos Rojo occupying the left side of the back three, a move which gave United more purpose down that side of the pitch.
But Liverpool were able to keep United away from Simon Mignolet’s goal, with Morgan Schneiderlin’s 20-yard effort – saved by the Belgian keeper – the best of their chances early in the second half.
Liverpool continued to play with greater efficiency going forward and United were indebted to De Gea yet again on 55 minutes when he produced a fingertip save to push Coutinho’s powerful strike from long range over the crossbar.
United attempted to wear Liverpool down with their possession game, but while it gave them greater control of the centre of the pitch, Mignolet continued to watch on largely untroubled, only needing to race off his line to punch a Varela cross away from the head of Anthony Martial.
De Gea was at least proving his worth, if many of his team-mates were not. The keeper palmed away a swerving Clyne shot on 66 minutes as Liverpool turned the screw, but his resistance was finally broken on 74 minutes by Firmino.
Carrick’s heavy first touch from Jordan Henderson’s cross saw the ball bounce to Adam Lallana, who picked out Firmino and the Brazilian scored from six yards.
It could have been an even worse night for the visitors as Fellaini appeared to elbow Emre Can in the face in the final minute, for which he would have been sent off if the referee had seen it.
The victory was no more than Liverpool deserved and Anfield exploded in celebration – and probably a realisation that this United team will not be able to turn it around at Old Trafford.