Luis Suarez' return to the Liverpool starting lineup overshadowed all other stories leading up to kickoff at Old Trafford yesterday. For those of our readers who've been away on a short visit to another planet, the Uruguayan striker's return was predicated by an eight game suspension due to the racial abuse he hurled at United defender Patrice Evra the last time these two teams met in the League. Evra himself was in his customary left back spot and sporting the captain's armband to begin the game, necessitating a midfield handshake between the abuser and his victim just prior to the festivities commencing.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, and despite the public assurances of his Manager to the contrary, Suarez tried to skip Evra in the handshake line, injecting even further drama into an already caustic atmosphere. To their credit, United fans showered the racist Suarez with a resounding chorus of boos, vocally demonstrating their displeasure with the Uruguayan's despicable behavior. The atmosphere that ensued made a tense rivalry even more overheated than per usual. Herewith, our report: I'm so blown away by the refusal of Suarez to shake the offered hand of the United Captain that the first five minutes of the match pass in a complete blur. By the time I come back to my senses, Antonio Valencia is hauled down just outside the box by Jose Enrique, necessitating the first crucial decision of the afternoon. Referee Phil Dowd -- who will have his hands full today -- chooses to ignore the flashpoint and instead of brandishing a deserved card, he awards a free kick. Enrique bowls over Rafael just a few minutes later, and once again Dowd refuses to go to his pocket, but the warning signs have been served to both Liverpool and the referee. At the other end, Liverpool right back Glenn Johnson flashes just inches wide of goal, De Gea beaten, as he momentarily escapes Evra's attention, and cuts inside before taking aim. The possession is virtually 50/50 over the game's first 15 minutes, and it still feels at this point as if both sides are feeling the other out. In truth, there's some sloppy play from both teams, turnovers marring the enjoyment of both sets of fans. Rafael and Danny Welbeck almost combine to sneak the ball past Liverpool 'keeper Pepe Reina after the United defender was played into the box by Antonio Valencia. United's own understated South American, this one from Ecuador, and a person who prefers to let his boots do the talking, is giving Stewart Downing and Enrique all they can handle on the right hand side of the pitch. There's not many chances for either side in the game's first 25 minutes, as both sides continue to probe cautiously. United are guilty of one too many turnovers at the game's half hour mark, leading to a choppy feel to the game, and the most sustained possession comes from the defenders on both sides of the ball. Paul Scholes' bullet header is beaten away by Reina after a wonderful passing spell by the home side; in truth, if the header was either side of the Spaniard, the Reds would be one to the good on the afternoon. Welbeck flashes forward a minute later as United begin to stretch the Liverpool defense for the first time, but his decision making betrays him as he chooses to cross the ball into a blur of white shirts rather than take an unobstructed shot on goal. Welbeck displays some sure-footed touches to create another half chance, but once again, that's all it is -- a half chance. The Englishman seems slightly reluctant to pull the trigger on the afternoon, more content to try an intricate movement with Rooney than a solo shot on goal. It's a tense atmosphere heading onto the locker rooms, as Suarez stirs the pot once again by firing a ball into the stands after the halftime whistle. Referee Dowd is so blind to any transgressions by this point that he appears to be escorted off the pitch by a seeing eye dog. Wayne Rooney reacts quickest to an early second half corner, brilliantly sticking it in the net in front of the Stratford End to open a one goal margin, and kick off the final 45 minutes of the match. It's a classy take by Roo, who shoves off the "underperformer against Liverpool" tag line in one fail swoop, setting off shouts of ecstasy from the home crowd. Just four minutes later and it's Rooney again, five-holing Pepe Reina after Antonio Valencia forces a turnover deep in Liverpool territory, and finds an unmarked Rooney front of goal. It's a left footed finish for Roo, and the home side are now two goals ahead with the score, and miles ahead of the other team in terms of class. Rooney passes an opportunity for the hat trick, narrowly missing Valencia for what would have been game, set and match. United are thoroughly controlling the action at the game's hour mark, as Craig Bellamy and Andy Carroll are introduced for Jay Spearing and Stewart Downing, neither of whom has been effective in the least. The substitutions appear to have no immediate effect, however, as United continue to boss the game and create the better of the chances. The United game runs through Rooney and Valencia on yet another game day -- this is becoming a repetitive theme on this blog --, the two conspiring to absolutely terrorize Liverpool's usually stout set of defenders. Liverpool appears to concede defeat with a large amount of time still left on the clock, sitting back way too deeply to defend, offering little to no pressure on the ball, and Charlie Adam's introduction on 75 minutes is the last roll of the dice by Liverpool Manager Kenneth Dalglish (who, through his utterly classless pre- and post-game behavior, will only be referred to by his God-given name in these remarks going forward). As if immediately granting his coach's wish, Suarez pokes a ball past United goalkeeper David De Gea off a free kick that bundles around in the box, ensuring a tense final ten minutes. The ball pings around the box before the embattled Liverpool forward strikes to offer Liverpool a lifeline back into the game. All of a sudden the visitors have a bit more bounce to their step, and there's a slightly nervous feeling around Old Trafford as the clock ticks down toward full time. United take their time on throw ins and look to deliberately slow down the pace of the contest, playing a four corners brand of football to run out the clock. Danny Welbeck foolishly concedes a free kick in stoppage time, and De Gea is forced to palm over the bar to keep the scoreline fixed. It's the second straight week in which the embattled United 'keeper has made a spectacular reflex save to preserve points for his side. An offside Suarez heads just over the bar to cause a gasp from the crowd, but United see the game out in typical style: with one final attack.
At full time it's 2-1 to United. The Reds may have won the game, but they won the day, as well. Evra's classy behavior stands in stark contrast to the despicable villain Suarez, who appears to be quickly wearing out his welcome in English football.