Steven Gerrard ruins the Reds return of Kenny Dalglish
In the pantheon of Liverpool legends, two names may stand apart from all others, elevated above Billy Liddell and Roger Hunt, Kevin Keegan and Graeme Souness, Ian Rush and John Barnes by their deeds.
They are the club's greatest No 7 and its finest No 8, the artist and the inspiration, the new manager and the long-serving skipper. They are Kenny Dalglish and Steven Gerrard.
In times of need, the theory goes, you can rely on your own. It is a policy that Liverpool have adopted; in a city that can be suspicious of outsiders, they have turned to men with an intricate, instinctive understanding of the club and an almost unrivalled loyalty. How reassuring.
If "King Kenny" has reclaimed the throne of Anfield, Gerrard is by implication, the prince. Yet a right royal mess was compounded by the captain. The returning champion was undermined as the usual hero made a rare diversion into villainy.
Gerrard's dismissal means he will be barred from Dalglish's first three league fixtures.
The generous interpretation is that a scything challenge on Michael Carrick was the product of a misguided willingness to impress an icon.
The sole source of commitment in the dismal end to Roy Hodgson's regime provided a surfeit. His ban includes Dalglish's Anfield return, the evocative fixture that is Sunday's Merseyside derby against Everton.
"Steven Gerrard's not that type of player," Sir Alex Ferguson said. "But I don't think the referee had an option."
Dalglish should escape censure. The cards were already stacked against him before Gerrard's departure.
A first-minute penalty, given against Daniel Agger for clipping Dimitar Berbatov's heels and converted nervelessly by Ryan Giggs, ensured Ferguson's immediate reassertion of his authority over his fellow Glaswegian.
"The two decisions are important factors in the game," Dalglish said.
Agger's inclusion was part of three changes to the back four. A decade out of management, Dalglish could not be accused of indecisiveness. Indeed, there were signs Liverpool got a lift from a legend; their passing seemed sharper, the side more spirited after shaking off the anaemia of the Hodgson era.
"The boys stuck to their task and not one of them could be faulted in any way, shape or form," the new caretaker manager said. "A great deal of enthusiasm and effort from the players which was matched by the supporters."
Despite the result, a legend offered a lift, not least to the travelling fans. The chorus of "Dal-glish" may not intimidate opponents in the way it did in the Scot's gilded prime, but it still offers succours to Liverpool fans. They can derive comfort from the past.
Hodgson's legitimacy was queried but Dalglish's will never be.
Anfield diehards are less sceptical of his credentials than other onlookers. A decade out of management is a rare recipe for success. Yet, though it wasn't alchemy, there were signs a sharp footballing mind remains intact.
Raul Meireles, strangely stranded on the right flank by Hodgson, was picked in his proper position: central midfield. Dalglish's substitutes were a threat, and both Ryan Babel and David Ngog could have scored with their first touch.
A secondary question is if a multinational dressing room of multimillionaires will respond to Dalglish's appointment with the fervour of Gerrard or Jamie Carragher.
The initial indications were positive: Fernando Torres was energised. But much has changed in the two decades since Dalglish relinquished his crown, an isolated, introverted British league becoming the global game. This is a test of adaptability.
Rewind to 1991 and Ferguson lived in Dalglish's shadow. For one afternoon, he resumed his old role.
United were upstaged off the field, though not on it. Jonny Evans hit the post with a header while they were denied further goals by Jose Reina's resistance; a stop from Berbatov was followed by a remarkable treble save to deny the Bulgarian, Rafael da Silva and Patrice Evra within the space of a few seconds.
It was, nonetheless, yet another triumph for Ferguson.
The veteran managers had walked out together. Ferguson's message, it seemed, was brief. "He said: 'Welcome back'," said Dalglish. And for the cheering Liverpool fans in the corner, his is a very welcome return. They deemed Hodgson an imposter. For them, it is a case of "Long live the king".
Published: January 10, 2011 04:00 AM