Kuyt hat-trick makes United suffer
Liverpool's fully deserved 3-1 victory over Manchester United at Anfield dented Sir Alex Ferguson's side's hopes of a straightforward run-in and at the same time restored some pride for the Reds after two defeats at Old Trafford already this campaign.
Dirk Kuyt grabbed the headlines with a first Liverpool hat-trick against United since Peter Beardsley's in September 1990, before Javier Hernandez headed an injury-time consolation - but there were many more who deserved the plaudits.
Tireless livewire Luis Suarez had a hand in all three goals while Lucas Leiva and Raul Meireles produced impressive midfield performances. The afternoon was capped off with a long-awaited debut for £35million record signing Andy Carroll after more than two months on the sidelines with a thigh injury.
For United, their second-choice central defensive partnership of Wes Brown and Chris Smalling, deputising for the suspended Nemanja Vidic and injured Rio Ferdinand, never looked comfortable on an afternoon when very few of the visiting team reached anywhere near the exacting standards Ferguson demands.
They still remain top of the table, and it is difficult to bet against them being in that position come May, but two defeats in five days - having lost at Chelsea in midweek - leave plenty of questions to be answered.
"It's perfect," Kuyt told Sky Sports. "You dream about the hat-trick and to do it against United is the best feeling ever. I'm more than happy but I have to thank Luis because he played great and created two of the goals. They were quite easy goals, I used to score them in Holland when I played more like a striker. They count and I'm more than happy to take them."
Suarez sets the standard
While Carroll had claimed all the adulation prior to kick-off, when the action got going it was his fellow January arrival Suarez who had an effect where it mattered most. The Uruguay international, a £22.7million transfer from Ajax, had one early effort prodded at Edwin van der Sar but that was merely a precursor to a piece of brilliance to set up the opener.
When he collected the ball on the left of the penalty area his route to goal was blocked by a number of opponents but his quick feet saw him weave past Rafael, Michael Carrick and Wes Brown on his way to the byline. From there he squared the ball through Van der Sar's legs to present Kuyt with a tap-in from just inches.
Suarez could claim to have had a hand in the next one too - but the main credit had to go to Nani, who had a defensive aberration. The Portugal international inexplicably headed the Uruguayan's cross back into his own six-yard area where Kuyt gleefully nodded in.
Liverpool's lead was fully deserved but it had been United who had come closest to scoring prior to Kuyt's 34th-minute strike. Dimitar Berbatov, scorer of a match-winning hat-trick in their Old Trafford league encounter, volleyed Wayne Rooney's knockdown against the outside of Pepe Reina's right-hand post.
The rivalry between the teams, England's dominant pairing over the last four decades, was evident in the closing stages of the first half. Jamie Carragher, switched to right-back after Fabio Aurelio went off injured, was lucky to escape with just a booking after a reckless shin-high tackle on Nani. After the ensuing melee Nani departed on a stretcher, replaced by Javier Hernandez, and Van der Sar was cautioned.
Rafael also benefited from referee Phil Dowd's leniency after a high challenge on Lucas Leiva earned him, and Martin Skrtel for his retaliation, a booking. The second half began with United, not unexpectedly, having their best spell and for 20 minutes it appeared a goal was imminent.
Kuyt kills off United
Ryan Giggs, breaking Sir Bobby Charlton's record of 606 league appearances, met Rooney's cross with a first-time shot which whistled just over the crossbar to serve as a warning that the game was far from finished. Meireles had to clear off the line for the second time in the match to prevent Berbatov's close-range header going in while Giggs curled an 18-yard free-kick over.
More gaps were appearing in the visitors' defence, though, and when Kuyt put Meireles clean through Van der Sar came to the rescue by palming his angled shot away. The Dutchman was at fault in the 65th minute, however, when he spilled Suarez's free-kick and his compatriot knocked in the rebound.
Carroll's long-awaited debut arrived in the 74th minute when he replaced Meireles to a rapturous reception and his first touch was a goalbound header. Kuyt's supreme confidence saw him attempt a 25-yard volley which screamed wide while Gerrard twice hit low shots either side of each post. Hernandez scored a late headed consolation from Giggs' cross in added time but it hardly raised a cheer among the visiting fans.