Premier League - Rooney fires United top against Liverpool
Reds boss Kenny Dalglish had insisted that Suarez - back from an eight-match ban for a racial incident with Patrice Evra - would shake hands with his foe before kick-off; but the Uruguayan provoked the hosts by snubbing the Frenchman’s peace offering.
It provoked an angry if controlled reaction from Evra, with Rio Ferdinand rejecting Suarez in a tit-for-tat response to set the tone for the day.
The childishness led to an unsavoury atmosphere that spilled into the tunnel at half-time: a confrontation between players from both sides was reportedly broken up by police, and there was some jostling after the final whistle as Evra celebrated with the home fans.
Back to the football and United took a quickfire 2-0 lead early in the second half thanks to the poacher’s instinct of the in-form Rooney; Suarez pulled one back from close range late on.
The first half was a cagey affair, with United dominating possession but struggling to break down Liverpool’s packed defence and midfield: the hosts went close with a Paul Scholes header that Pep Reina kept out with a reflex stop, while good defending from Daniel Agger prevented a Rooney tap-in after fine wing-play by the bubbly Daniel Welbeck.
The visitors mostly struggled to get out of their half but, when they did, looked fairly threatening: Glen Johnson pinged a low drive just wide, while - just before half-time - Ferdinand stopped Suarez racing clean through past Evra with a fine sliding tackle, although Liverpool felt he fouled his man.
Referee Phil Dowd had kept a lid on the anger during play but it threatened to get nasty as both sides left the pitch at the break: United players attempted to have words with Suarez, with Dowd appearing to calm things as they entered the tunnel. However, it soon emerged that players from both sides became embroiled away from the cameras.
Suarez may like to write his own headlines, but Rooney does a pretty good job of it himself, although for the right reasons in recent weeks.
The second half could have been a scrappy, niggly affair but within a minute of the restart the England striker had opened the scoring with a thumping volley from a Ryan Giggs corner that arrived at his feet via a failed interception from Jordan Henderson.
Two minutes later and Rooney had a second, sliding a cool low finish through the legs of Reina after Antonio Valencia picked the dithering Jay Spearing’s pocket.
Liverpool were shell-shocked and Rooney threatened to run riot, seeing a ferocious long-range strike chalked off for a debatable foul by Jonny Evans in the build-up, and putting a sitter wide after a delightful step-over from Scholes.
While United had come out buoyant, Liverpool - and Suarez - seemed strangely subdued, barely making an impact on United’s final third for much of the second half.
Indeed the rekindling of the Suarez saga appeared to relax the hosts if anything as they played some of their best football since the early-season 8-2 thrashing of Arsenal.
Perhaps they were too relaxed as, with 10 minutes remaining, some slack defending on Charlie Adam’s straight free-kick into the box saw the ball allowed into the six-yard box, where it ricocheted off the body of Ferdinand to allow Suarez - of course - a simple finish from close range.
Liverpool sensed an unlikely comeback and it was almost completed when Johnson hit a clean, rising drive from range after United cleared an injury-time corner: much like against Chelsea last weekend, De Gea was equal to it with a fine tip over.
United took the ball into the corner and the final whistle soon came, with Evra’s bounding celebrations with the home fans ignored by Suarez but not his team-mates, who had to be ushered away from the Frenchman.
Whatever one's view on the Suarez-Evra question, the significance of the result cannot be doubted - United are top, although possibly for one day only, while Liverpool are four points short of Chelsea.