By Matt Lawton Chief Football Correspondent
Stoop: Park Ji-sung nodded home on the hour for Manchester United
The two finest English midfielders of their respective generations appeared on the pitch here and Ji-Sung Park upstaged both of them.
In fairness to Paul Scholes, there was not an awful lot he could have done about it in the eight minutes he spent on the field. Left on the bench for the previous 87, he only came on so Sir Alex Ferguson could kill some time and reward Park with the standing ovation he richly deserved.
But Steven Gerrard proved nothing like as influential as a talented, tenacious South Korean who has scored important goals against Arsenal, AC Milan and Liverpool in recent weeks.
There was a time when Ferguson considered Gerrard the most influential player in the English game. But not on this occasion. Not when it was players like Park and Darren Fletcher who took charge of this scrappy, fiercely contested encounter and propelled Manchester United back to the top of the Barclays Premier League. Wayne Rooney has dominated the headlines in recent months and rightly so.
The outstanding footballer in this country right now, he took his season's tally to 33 with the goal that cancelled out a superb fifth-minute header from Fernando Torres.
But if there is a crucial difference between United and the side that pushed them hardest last season, it is as much about the support cast as the guys in the leading roles.
In a season when Liverpool have been far too reliant on Torres and Gerrard, United have possessed quality in every area of the pitch. It is because of players like Park and Fletcher, like Michael Carrick, Jonny Evans, Antonio Valencia and even Nani, that they have managed to overcome the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo and remain a major force.
Some players always deliver. Patrice Evra rivals Ashley Cole as one of the finest left backs in the world and now Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Gary Neville are again standing to his right. United have a solidity few teams can rival.
Full blooded: Wayne Rooney dives in on Steven Gerrard in the fiery affair
But where too many Liverpool players have failed to respond to the challenge of delivering that elusive first title under Rafa Benitez, a number of United's players have taken a significant step forward. Not even a more central role unsettled Park.
'Because of his intelligence and discipline he can do a slightly different job for us,' said Ferguson.
'He's such a bright little lad and his courage got him the goal.'
For Fletcher, too, there was praise. 'It's interesting that we have lost the last three games to Liverpool and Darren has missed all of them,' he said.
'He covers every inch of the ground and does a great job.'
Opener: Fernando Torres (right) and Gerrard celebrate
In Liverpool's side there were no such performers. Javier Mascherano succeeded only in conceding the penalty from which Rooney eventually scored - Pepe Reina saved the spot-kick before Rooney seized on the rebound - and Lucas and Gerrard failed to have any impact.
A lack of composure was part of the problem, the pressure of what is starting to look like the hopeless pursuit of a Champions League place seemingly getting the better of them.
Torres appeared particularly troubled. He opened the scoring with a super finish but he was booked for a nasty challenge on Park and he could have been in trouble with referee Howard Webb on a number of other occasions, not least when he scuffed the penalty spot with his studs seconds before Rooney planted the ball.
Had Torres been more composed, he might have equalised when Gerrard set him up in the 90th minute, but he failed to connect properly with a right-foot shot one would normally expect him to bury.
Liverpool might point to the fact that this was their third match in a week, but they will regret how easily they conceded their advantage.
Spot on: Rooney fires home his first-half penalty
A terrific opening goal came from a swiftly executed attack that was sparked by a wayward pass from Carrick. Torres back-heeled the ball into the path of Gerrard, the Liverpool captain surged downfield before passing to Dirk Kuyt on the right flank and Torres then appeared between Neville and Ferdinand to meet Kuyt's cross with a quite sensational header.
That Benitez is blaming Valencia for United's penalty is, frankly, ludicrous. It was not the red card offence Ferguson claimed it was, and it was hardly surprising to see the two managers clash in the technical area when United's manager protested to Webb.
Hotting up: Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson clashes with Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez
But Mascherano took hold of the rapidly advancing United winger deep in Liverpool's half and he was still clinging on when Valencia fell inside the box. It was a penalty. No doubt about it.
Rooney overcame the dirty tricks of Torres as well as Reina's save to level the scores and Park could have struck on at least one other occasion before he celebrated the decisive goal on the hour.
A neat ball to the right from Rooney was followed by a fine cross from Fletcher and Park, taking advantage of the fact that Jamie Carragher was too busy trying to stop Rooney, did the rest, scoring with a diving header that underlined the contribution of the United players beyond Rooney.