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It was billed as the return of Rio Ferdinand but it was his fellow centre-back Mikael Silvestre who decided Wednesday night's north-west derby with two headed goals.

When Eric Cantona came back from an eight-month suspension in October 1995, he turned in a virtuoso display against Liverpool, scoring one and setting up another in a 2-2 draw. Ferdinand, as a centre-back, was never likely to make such an impact but he tarnished an otherwise composed performance by playing his part in Liverpool's equaliser.

He had made a couple of interceptions and a couple of blocks, and had looked generally assured when, nine minutes after half-time, he badly underhit a pass to Roy Keane, leading to the concession of a free-kick by Wes Brown. Xabi Alonso bent it to the back-post, where Steve Finnan, unmarked, headed down, flicked off Roy Carroll - preferred to Tim Howard for the first time this season - and in off the shins of John O'Shea.

Scruffy, unfortunate and avoidable, but that has been the way of it for United of late. Their wounds have tended to be part self-inflicted, part bad luck, and generally ludicrous. At least this time they had the appetite and quality to regain the initiative and record their second Premiership victory of the season.

Ferdinand is not the totem Cantona was but his return could still provide a symbolic turning-point. Aided by an energy bar handed to him with about quarter of an hour remaining, he slightly surprisingly completed the full 90 minutes.

"It's brilliant, fantastic," he said after, bewilderingly, being named man of the match. "It was never going to be easy. I was under no illusions that eight months is a long time, and with all the nervous energy I needed some sugar intake, which is why the physio brought a bar for me to chew on."

Yet for all the positives for United, there was a sense that victory on Monday night was surrendered to them. Two concerns had marred Liverpool's impressive Champions League victory over Monaco last week - Djibril Cisse's proclivity for being offside, and a vulnerability against the crossed ball and both were in evidence on Monday night. Liverpool can claim with some justification that both dead-balls from which they conceded were erroneously awarded, but that should not be allowed to disguise more a fundamental flaw.

Cristiano Ronaldo had already hit the post with a skidding shot from 25 yards when United took a 20th-minute lead. Sami Hyypia was adjudged to have tripped Paul Scholes by the right-hand corner flag, and when Ryan Giggs bent his free kick to the back post, Silvestre was left unmarked to run in and head past Jerzy Dudek.

At that stage, with Ronaldo and Giggs marauding down the flanks, United were well on top, and a sharper Van Nistelrooy might twice have increased their lead.

By the time Silvestre got his second, from a disputed Giggs corner midway through the second half, the roar that greeted his powerful header was one of relief as Liverpool, despite the loss of their captain Steven Gerrard to a suspected broken metatarsal that looks likely to keep him out of England's World Cup qualifiers against Wales and Azerbaijan, came back into it in the second half.

United, though, were worth their win, and if this marks the beginning of a resurgence history will judge it Ferdinand's night. "He was superb," Sir Alex Ferguson said. "He has a composure and assuredness that transmits itself through the team."

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