Daniel Sturridge’s maiden European goal, from the penalty spot, teed up Louis van Gaal’s first defeat against the Reds after four straight wins for United against their arch rivals.
Sturridge’s first-half strike was followed by Roberto Firmino’s close-range effort 17 minutes from time. And, had it not been for the continued brilliance of United keeper David de Gea, it would have been over as a contest before next week’s return.
United manager Van Gaal had spoken of not living in the past, Liverpool counterpart Jurgen Klopp had said he did not believe in enemies in football, but an atmosphere crackling with electricity certainly did not reflect that.
Liverpool’s football in the first half was played primarily in United’s half as they dominated the midfield battle with a front four of Sturridge, Firmino, Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho.
There was no wonder the back-tracking Memphis Depay was lured into bringing down Nathaniel Clyne in the area after the advancing full-back collected Firmino’s outside-of-the-foot through-ball.
With regular penalty-taker James Milner absent with illness, Sturridge stepped up to beat De Gea.
But the Spain international kept his side in it during the opening 45 minutes with three brilliant saves.
De Gea just clawed out Coutinho’s shot, while his save in a one-on-one with Sturridge was Peter Schmeichel-like and the point-blank stop from Lallana’s volley was pure instinct.
Michael Carrick replaced goalscoring prodigy Marcus Rashford, who apart from one half-chance in the opening minute had a quiet night, at half-time as United tried to gain a foothold in midfield by switching to a back three with the substitute at its heart.
United enjoyed a spell of dominance but De Gea continued to save his side, denying fierce drives from Coutinho and Clyne. He had no chance with Firmino’s close-range stab after Lallana capitalised on Carrick’s failure to clear.
United will have to do much better next week if they are to rescue a European campaign which began with back-to-back wins in the Champions League.