This was the strangest of north-west derbies, even before news of Patrice Evra's claims against Luis Suárez broke. Sir Alex Ferguson said it only got going after the first goal went in, which was true, though it might have conformed to a more recognisable template had the United manager picked a more recognisable team. Kenny Dalglish called the first hour sterile, and suggested it was because both sides know and respect each other so well, though not many have known United to play with Phil Jones in midfield, Danny Welbeck on his own up front and Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernández and Nani all watching from the bench.
Dalglish pointed out that Ferguson normally shuffles his side after international breaks and has a Champions League game to consider in midweek, yet if there is one game in the season that matters more urgently than squad rotation and safety first it is this one. Urgency was precisely what was lacking until the final stages, until then the teams were merely politely sparring. If this is what viewers crave in Kuala Lumpur, bring on Wigan v Bolton.
"It only became a good game after Liverpool scored," Ferguson said. Maybe it was because that was the point at which he chose to introduce the attacking players that helped rescue a point, although even with Rooney, Nani and Hernández on the pitch Liverpool still shaded the 20 minutes of excitement before the final whistle and were only denied a fourth successive home victory in this fixture by some sprightly saves from David de Gea in the closing stages. "I thought he was supposed to be struggling," Dalglish said, with a rueful smile. "He never struggled today."
The big surprise was Ferguson putting Rooney on the bench, not to get him used to watching important games from the sidelines, but because it had been "a bad week" for the player. ''He's devastated by the suspension. I felt with these circumstances that he's better off starting from the bench."
Liverpool used Steven Gerrard from the outset, both sides replicating each other with a five-man midfield and a lone striker. Though the returning midfielder thoroughly enjoyed scoring Liverpool's goal, he was unable to stamp his personality on an evenly contested first half, as was Ryan Giggs, his counterpart in the United lineup.
Set up in that fashion, neither side managed to commit enough players to attack to make the first half exciting, or even eventful. Jones ran about enthusiastically without bringing a great deal of penetration or cleverness to the visitors' play. Liverpool's midfield looked slow and stodgy. United just about managed to spend more of the first 45 minutes in their opponents' half, though Liverpool created the clearest chance to open the scoring, when a speculative attempt from Charlie Adam rebounded kindly for Suárez, who had a brief sight of goal but could only manage a shot straight at De Gea.
After the delightfully nimble Suárez had shown strength to muscle past Darren Fletcher and roll a shot narrowly wide, the game finally came to life in the 68th minute, with Rooney warming up on the touchline ready to come on. Adam made a direct run through midfield and was only stopped by a foul from Rio Ferdinand on the edge of the area. Andre Marriner ignored the Kop's requests to issue a second yellow card, the defender having been booked earlier for a foul on Suárez, and dismissal probably would have been harsh for what seemed only minimal contact.
Gerrard ensured Liverpool were fully rewarded by scoring direct from the free-kick, however, before making up for his seven months out with an orgy of celebration including not only badge-kissing but a knee-slide towards the scoreboard corner. It seemed a trifle OTT for a player just returned from a persistent groin problem, but Gerrard said he was just glad to be back and not watching from the stands. "To experience all that emotion again was fantastic," he said. "I couldn't even say it was a great free-kick. I was trying to put it over the wall but it went round the side. It's nice to have a bit of luck at long last."
Ferdinand owned up to contact, and could consider himself lucky to stay on the pitch, though not every foul needs to be a booking. "There was contact, but not enough to make a 13st bloke fall on the floor," he said.
Rooney duly came on to be ritually abused by a suddenly vocal Anfield crowd – "Who's the scouser in the wig?" and a few less tasteful observations – and took up a deep position just in front of his back four. If the logic of this was not immediately obvious, Ferguson's faith that Welbeck and the third substitute Hernández could conjure something up front was vindicated when the pair combined for the equaliser 10 minutes from time. Welbeck flicked on a corner, and Hernández escaped from Martin Skrtel's clutches to arrive in exactly the right place to force the ball past Pepe Reina. "He's brilliant at that," Ferguson said.
There was still time for Dirk Kuyt to bring a save from De Gea with a late chance that could have won the game for Liverpool, then for Jordan Henderson to bring an even better response from the goalkeeper with a dipping shot on the run in the final minute. De Gea has had his moments and his critics this season but he came through this test well, even if he knew little about the header Henderson flashed over his bar in stoppage time. Like United, Liverpool seemed to leave their best till last. This was a game the home side could have won. "It was a fair result," Ferguson said. Better amend that verdict. This was a game the home side should have won.