Talk of a new contract for Liverpool's captain may have seemed premature this week – his current deal doesn't expire until 2013 and the future can wait for a midfielder who has endured an arduous 2011 – but it demonstrated his value to Kenny Dalglish's team and that was reinforced here. Gerrard's first start in seven months, since Manchester United's last visit to Anfield, resulted in an influential display and, more importantly, a full 90 minutes. He produced the breakthrough when, having spotted a gap on the right of the United wall, between Ryan Giggs and Danny Welbeck, he told Charlie Adam to leave the free-kick. Gerrard also brought welcome balance to the Liverpool midfield. His return enabled Adam to leave the holding duties to Lucas Leiva and offer more support to the attack than he has previously done this season.
Sir Alex Ferguson rarely permits outside influences to disrupt Manchester United, but the combination of Rooney and a return to his native Merseyside is a strange exception. Last September, Ferguson omitted the forward from a 3-3 draw at Everton on the basis that the bear-pit of Goodison Park was no place for a man troubled by revelations about his private life. His poor form at the time and contract dispute had nothing to do with it, apparently. He was on the bench at Anfield having been "devastated" by the three-match ban that rules him out of the group stage of Euro 2012. No one disputes Rooney's reaction to Uefa's ruling, but leaving him to stew among the substitutes is not the solution. He has never risen to the bait at Anfield before and given "Who's the scouser in the wig?" was the most vicious chant he faced on Saturday afternoon, he was not likely to.
Only Ferguson will know whether his starting XI represented a snub to Rooney, plus Anderson and Nani for that matter, but there is no question he had to inject more defensive strength into his midfield after United's previous three league performances at Anfield. All had been characterised by a surprising lack of fight from the visitors and last season's 3-1 reverse, when Luis Suárez's virtuoso display met no resistance, demanded a response. Expectations for this game dropped the moment the team-sheet arrived, with United clearly intent on stifling Liverpool's supply to their Uruguayan striker. With the quality of passing and number of chances also deteriorating, this was a tough one to sell to Kuala Lumpur.
At the risk of irritating Dalglish by highlighting a player who didn't feature in the game, the biggest setback delivered to an England forward this afternoon was not to Rooney, but Andy Carroll. The auditions for Rooney's place at next summer's European Championship are now under way, but Liverpool's £35m centre-forward is still in the process of proving his worth at club level. As was said at the time, judgment on Carroll's goalscoring performance in the recent Merseyside derby was clouded by the early red card for Everton's Jack Rodwell – although he had struggled against the Everton defence until cleverly losing his marker to score the crucial opening goal – but Dalglish opted for a one-man attack against United and Carroll was left on the bench throughout. Liverpool's target man was Suárez, not the towering former Newcastle United man, which must concern a player bought for that purpose.
The inquests and the doubts were inevitable from the moment United opted for the young Spaniard as Edwin van der Sar's successor, but, gradually, he is putting the early-season problems behind him and showing Ferguson has secured an outstanding talent. David de Gea produced a commanding display to deny Liverpool victory, standing up well to Suárez's chance in the first half, retaining concentration seconds after Javier Hernández had equalised to thwart Dirk Kuyt at the back post and producing an athletic save to tip away Jordan Henderson's measured volley in injury time. Equally impressive was his authority in the six-yard box, where Adam and Gerrard delivered a testing range of set pieces.