The Kop stirred one more time to sing Brendan Rodgers's name but the final tribute of an emotional, absorbing and controversial Anfield afternoon was motivated by sympathy not acclaim for the Liverpool manager. He is without a win after five league games in charge and, after Manchester United's first victory here in five years, luckless too.

Sir Alex Ferguson received the points and his team the benefit of every contentious decision as Robin van Persie's late penalty, United's first successful effort from the spot in four this season, applied gloss to their mediocre display.

Ferguson was also labelled a "grass" by Jonjo Shelvey for an unseen role in the midfielder's decisive first-half dismissal, the one major call from the referee Mark Halsey over which Liverpool could have no complaint. Not that it prevented Rodgers from trying.

"If Jonjo gets sent off then Jonny Evans has to be sent off as well," the Liverpool manager said. Both players had gone two-footed into a 50-50 challenge shortly before the interval but it has to be considered "careless, reckless or using excessive force" for a referee to show red and only Shelvey was adjudged guilty on that score.

"It was a tackle that both players had to go for but the Liverpool player can't be sent off and the Manchester United player stay on. It was very, very harsh and that's how it was throughout the game. There were a number of poor decisions that cost us."

Rodgers's frustration was understandable. Liverpool were the dominant force with 11 men, took a deserved lead with10 and, on the penalty award that ultimately gave United victory and perhaps an Evans challenge on Luis Suárez inside the United area, his grievance had legitimacy. He also had to contend with the loss of Fabio Borini, Daniel Agger and Martin Kelly to injury, the Italian forward and Danish defender potentially seriously.

"The best team lost," he added, and that brooked no argument. Even Ferguson conceded; "A win's a win, so we've got to be pleased with the result, but not the performance."

The tribute to the victims of Hillsborough and their families had been impeccably observed by everyone inside Anfield before the kick-off, Suárez shook hands with Patrice Evra and the focus of the pre-match concern passed without incident. Which made it all the more ridiculous that the controversy should erupt from a Liverpool player with his team in the ascendancy.

Rodgers's team dominated the first half thanks in the main to the prodigious pressing and work-rate of Steven Gerrard and Joe Allen in central midfield, Suárez up front and an intelligent display on the right by the 17-year-old, Raheem Sterling. By contrast, United were slow to the ball and sloppy in possession, with Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick anonymous and Nani a liability out on the left.

Anders Lindegaard, selected ahead of David de Gea in a visiting defence missing Nemanja Vidic, made the game's first save from Suárez's angled shot across goal and only instinctive reactions from Rafael and Carrick prevented Borini and Gerrard converting on the follow-up. The pattern hardly changed until United, with Paul Scholes added to midfield, eventually ground down Liverpool's 10 men. Gerrard escaped his marker to turn Shelvey's short corner into the side-netting via a rare touch from Van Persie and, despite creating few clear-cut openings, the home side were in control.

Then Shelvey helped United where they needed it most by weakening Liverpool's midfield with a dangerous challenge on Evans. He left the field with a heated exchange and an accusatory finger at Ferguson.

"I don't think he went for the ball," the United manager said. "The boy's gone in really dangerously and I don't think there's any other decision the referee could have given. He was trying to blame me, I suppose. Once he looks at it he can apologise if he likes. I think he should do that."

An apology of sorts did arrive from Shelvey's Twitter account. He wrote: "I apologise to the fans for getting sent off but no way was I pulling out of that tackle in a game of that importance. I'm sorry." The midfielder added: "I have also apologised to Sir Alex, just where I come from people don't grass people up to get someone sent off."

Liverpool pressed on with 10 men and it was no less than they deserved when the excellent Gerrard put them ahead a minute after the restart. United failed to clear a left wing cross from substitute Suso and the Liverpool captain capitalised to chest and volley into the bottom corner. Gerrard, who lost a cousin at Hillsborough, pointed to the sky in celebration but the lead lasted only five minutes before Antonio Valencia and Shinji Kagawa combined for Rafael to curl an exquisite left-foot shot in off the far post.

Halsey ignored Liverpool penalty appeals after challenges by Evans and Scholes on Suárez and Sterling respectively but awarded United a soft one when Glen Johnson was adjudged to have caught Valencia. Liverpool's converted left-back did not play the ball as Valencia dithered in the area but contact was minimal.

Despite José Reina's best efforts and following a lengthy delay as Agger was carried off with a suspected medial knee ligament injury, Van Persie succeeded where he, Javier Hernández and Nani had all failed this season and ended United's misery from the penalty spot. Rodgers' misfortune, by contrast, continues.