Manchester United left red faced as Liverpool gain the upper hand
Liverpool 2-0 Manchester United
Advantage Liverpool, and a healthy one at that, yet it would have been game, set and match against Manchester United but for the heroics of goalkeeper David De Gea.
Daniel Sturridge's questionable first-half penalty and a close-range strike by Roberto Firmino, following an awful mistake by United's Michael Carrick, ensured that Liverpool will travel to Old Trafford for next Thursday's Europa League round-of-16 second leg with a commanding 2-0 lead.
It could have been five or six, had it not been for De Gea's catalogue of crucial saves as the poverty of Louis van Gaal's United was exposed by a confident and energetic Liverpool.
United mustered just one shot on target, but Liverpool's failure to convert at least one more of their chances means that they will travel to Manchester with the tie still alive - if only just.
There have clearly been more significant encounters between these two clubs since the first of 194 previous meetings in April 1894.
Liverpool and United have fought out FA Cup and League Cup finals and battled for points at the business end of the league, so a last-16 meeting in the Europa League was some way down the pecking order, but with both clubs attempting to emerge from periods of transition, the outcome of this tie will only boost the victors and leave the losers searching for a route back to the glory days.
If only the likes of Souness, Dalglish, Hansen and Rush could be dusted off and wheeled out too, Jürgen Klopp's plans for a Liverpool revolution would be far further down the line.
The same applies to United under Van Gaal. Mounting injuries and poor recruitment left the Dutchman turning to youngsters Guillermo Varela and Marcus Rashford in a contest which has always been about giants of the game at the peak of their powers, rather than callow kids with nothing more than raw promise.
United lacked the cutting edge and guile to trouble Liverpool in a first half dominated by the home side.
Rashford's volley over the bar from Memphis Depay's cross after just 14 seconds was as close as United came during the opening period.
At the other end Liverpool were left to curse De Gea for keeping the score down after Sturridge's 19th-minute penalty opener.
Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo took his time before pointing to the spot following Depay's tug on Nathaniel Clyne, but it was a soft penalty. Sturridge calmly beat De Gea to give Liverpool the lead.
The opener raised the decibel levels inside Anfield, with the home fans sensing the opportunity to urge their team to a crucial second. Liverpool poured forward and Sturridge picked out Philippe Coutinho at the far post on 23 minutes, only for De Gea to smother the Brazilian's close-range shot.
On 31 minutes a slip by Chris Smalling gifted Sturridge a chance to score his second. De Gea came to United's rescue, as he did when producing a point-blank save from Adam Lallana four minutes before half-time.
Van Gaal reverted to 3-5-2 at the start of the second period, withdrawing Rashford and installing Carrick at centre-half. Daley Blind moved to left wing-back, with Marcos Rojo occupying the left side of the back three, a move which gave United more purpose down that side of the pitch.
Liverpool continued to play with greater efficiency and United were indebted to De Gea again on 55 minutes when he produced a fingertip save to push Coutinho's powerful strike from long range over the crossbar.
De Gea was at least proving his worth, if many of his team-mates were not. The keeper palmed away a swerving Clyne shot on 66, but his resistance was finally broken on 74 minutes by Firmino.
Carrick's heavy first touch from Jordan Henderson's cross let the ball bounce to Adam Lallana, who picked out Firmino and the Brazilian scored from six yards.
The win was no more than Liverpool deserved and Anfield exploded in celebration - and probably a realisation that United won't be able to turn it around at home.
LIVERPOOL: Mignolet, Clyne, Lovren, Sakho, Moreno, Can, Henderson, Lallana, Coutinho, Firmino (Origi, 84 mins), Sturridge (Allen, 64 mins). Unused subs: Ward, Toure, Benteke, Smith, Ojo.
MAN UTD: De Gea, Varela, Smalling, Blind, Rojo, Schneiderlin (Schweinsteiger, 79 mins), Fellaini, Memphis, Mata (Herrera, 79 mins), Martial, Rashford (Carrick, 46 mins). Unused subs: Romero, Darmian, Riley, Weir.
Man of the match: Firmino (pictured)
Match rating: 7/10
Referee: Carlos Velasco Carballo (Madrid)