Liverpool - from ruthless to toothless in nine months
When Liverpool's team coach pulled out of Old Trafford last March, it was fuelled by the growing belief that years of domination by Manchester United were finally coming to an end.
Liverpool's 3-0 win, built on the thrilling attacking strategy of manager Brendan Rodgers, hugely flattered a United side in disarray under David Moyes and cast adrift of their resurgent rivals by 14 points.
It was the performance of two teams and clubs seemingly heading in opposite directions, Liverpool inspired by Luis Suarez on the field and Rodgers off it, United struggling under a manager out of his depth and with star names failing to perform.
Manchester United's Wayne Rooney, perhaps feeling the pain of being a boyhood Everton fan, described it as "a nightmare - one of my worst days in football".
Yet as Liverpool left Old Trafford in the rain on Sunday, March seemed a lifetime away after a reversal of that scoreline and one question loomed large: have Liverpool wasted the best chance they will have in years to regain superiority over United?
|Two tales of summer business|
|Liverpool: Adam Lallana (£25m from Southampton), Dejan Lovren (£20m from Southampton), Rickie Lambert (£4m from Southampton), Lazar Markovic (£20m from Benfica), Mario Balotelli (£16m from AC Milan), Alberto Moreno (£12m from Sevilla)|
|Manchester United: Ander Herrera (£29m from Athletic Bilbao), Luke Shaw (£27m from Southampton), Marcos Rojo (£16m from Sporting Lisbon), Angel Di Maria (£59.7m from Real Madrid), Daley Blind (£13.8m from Ajax), Radamel Falcao (loan from Monaco)|
Have Liverpool squandered the Suarez cash?
When Liverpool thrashed United at Old Trafford, Suarez was the catalyst in a devastating three-pronged attack characterised by his goals and movement - qualities also possessed by Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling.
Liverpool were always going to be stripped of stardust when Suarez went to Barcelona for £75m, but that cash - plus further investment from Fenway Sports Group (FSG) - should have allowed them to build on that second-place finish, 20 points in front of United.
And yet a glance around Old Trafford on Sunday would not have filled Liverpool fans with confidence that the opportunity presented in last summer's transfer market had been taken.
Dejan Lovren, a £20m signing from Southampton and touted as Liverpool's new defensive leader, continued his poor form and played a part in United's third goal, clearing Rooney's pass straight to Juan Mata, who set up Robin van Persie.
Adam Lallana, another buy from Southampton at £25m, lasted only 45 minutes, with Rodgers saying after the game: "I just felt we needed something more in the middle. More presence."
Full-back Alberto Moreno was signed for £12m from Sevilla but his promising start has evaporated. He was poor at Old Trafford, lasting only 68 minutes before he was replaced by Lazar Markovic, a £20m summer signing from Benfica who has yet to shine.
Mario Balotelli, a half-time substitute, has proved to be a £16m gamble that has failed. He has yet to score a Premier League goal, although he will believe it was only the brilliance of United keeper David de Gea that denied him.
The Italian has had more shots - 42 including those blocked - without scoring a goal than anyone in the Premier League, while De Gea has only once made more saves in a Premier League game than he did on Sunday - nine against Tottenham in August 2011 as opposed to eight against Liverpool.
Emre Can, a £10m capture from Bayer Leverkusen, and Rickie Lambert were unused substitutes.
All in all, this was not a great advert for Liverpool's summer business.
Liverpool tried, and failed, to sign Alexis Sanchez before he went on to become Arsenal's £32m inspiration, so, instead of stellar names, they have brought in quantity with promise rather than quality designed to bring instant rewards.
Rodgers, part of Liverpool's much-debated transfer "committee", believes he has built a squad for the future, but after almost winning the league last season, the future is now and time is never a commodity on offer to Liverpool's manager. In Rodgers' defence, he accepts this.
"Liverpool is a fantastic club and I have the huge privilege of managing it, but we had big changes in the summer and it has taken a lot of time to bed in some of the players," he said.
He may also share the responsibility with his committee but only one man will bear the brunt of the criticism and pay the price should they fail.
Rodgers desperate for answers
Rodgers has been shuffling his pack constantly in search of the winning formula that came so easily last season.
His selection for the 3-0 defeat at Manchester United was his boldest yet - the sort of pick that would have been labelled a masterpiece had it resulted in success. But margins are fine, and missed chances, allied to the brilliance of De Gea, merely increased the pressure on the Northern Irishman.
United were ruthless, Liverpool toothless. They have scored 19 goals in 16 matches. At this point last year they had found the net 39 times.
The biggest call at Old Trafford was to finally drop goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, an increasingly uncertain figure whose lack of confidence has spread not only to Liverpool's defence but also to the crowd at Anfield.
It was the timing of the selection that raised questions. Rodgers has perhaps had opportunities to drop Mignolet before so to do it for a game at Old Trafford was certainly courageous.
The problem comes with his replacement, Brad Jones, who has never convinced and did nothing against United to suggest he could be a keeper to fulfil the demands of a club of Liverpool's stature. He dived in the wrong direction for Wayne Rooney's opener and was bizarrely doing something similar in the lead up to Van Persie's third.
It was a decision that came as a surprise to former Liverpool defender Mark Lawrenson, who told BBC Sport's Match of the Day 2 Extra before the game: "I'd be amazed if Simon Mignolet gets dropped. The back four keeps changing from game to game and it's impossible for the goalkeeper to develop a relationship with the defence if it keeps changing.
"It would be really harsh on Mignolet. Brad Jones instead? Absolutely no. Liverpool need results. You pick your best team through the next games and see how they do."
Lovren's failings in defence have helped to exacerbate last season's defensive difficulties, which were covered up by attacking brilliance, while Rodgers' search for his best team and formation saw him alter the shape of his team to 3-4-3 at Old Trafford.
The sight of Sterling being used as Liverpool's lone striker was understandable as a tactic to target United's vulnerable rearguard. He certainly had chances, with his four efforts on target only second behind Tottenham's Rafael van der Vaart (five in August 2011) for an opponent in a Premier League game at Old Trafford since 2003.
It is also, perhaps, an admission that Liverpool have come nowhere near adequately replacing Suarez, a situation made worse by Sturridge's injuries.
For now, it seems Rodgers must continue to seek the winning combination. As he said after the game: "I will keep searching for solutions."
United reborn as Liverpool hit the skids
Liverpool's decline this season has not been made easier by Manchester United's ascent back into the top four without hitting anything like their best form.
They rode their luck to win at Southampton, while there was still an air of vulnerability about their defence even in victory on Sunday.
Yet since that dark day at Old Trafford in March, the mood and direction around Old Trafford has changed, the emphasis has switched.
Moyes did not last the season and his replacement by Van Gaal saw something of the swagger return to 'The Theatre Of Dreams' under the hugely confident, experienced and successful Dutchman.
|Last six results|
|14 December: 3-0 Liverpool (win)||14 December: 3-0 Manchester United (lost)|
|8 December: 2-1 Southampton (win)||9 December: 1-1 Basel (drew)|
|2 December: 2-1 Stoke (win)||6 December: 0-0 Sunderland (drew)|
|29 November: 3-0 Hull (win)||2 December: 3-1 Leicester City (won)|
|22 November: 1-0 Arsenal (win)||29 November: 1-0 Stoke (won)|
|8 November: 1-0 Crystal Palace (win)||26 November: 2-2 Ludogorets Razgrad (drew)|
The win over Liverpool was achieved without £59.7m British record buy Angel Di Maria, out with injury along with £27m England defender Luke Shaw and £16m Argentina defender Marcos Rojo.
Radamel Falcao and Ander Herrera came off the bench, so Van Gaal has formidable weaponry when all his players are fit.
United's hierarchy have made it clear that more lavish spending will be sanctioned and, with no European football, they can fix their sights firmly on sealing a return to the Champions League, which looked a long way off at the end of last season.
Liverpool look like they need another huge outlay, but do they have the finance to do it? United certainly have.
What next for Rodgers?
The immediate priority is an increasingly hazardous-looking Capital One Cup quarter-final against Championship leaders Bournemouth on Wednesday, but there is still no immediate danger to Rodgers' position.
FSG are making it privately clear that they stand by their man until at least the end of this season - and surely all logic and fair play suggests this is the correct course of action given that Rodgers almost brought the title back to Liverpool for the first time in a quarter of a century.
"We just have to keep working and our confidence will return," Rodgers said in the aftermath of defeat at Old Trafford.
This is, however, a vital week. Win at Bournemouth to reach a Cup semi-final then beat Arsenal at Anfield at the weekend and suddenly the picture is brighter.
At the moment, the picture is bleak and the statistics make grim reading. Based on three points for a win, this is Liverpool's lowest total after 16 games since 1964-65 and former manager Roy Hodgson - sacked in January 2011 after winning only seven of 20 games - had one more point at this stage of that season.
So much of what Rodgers wants to do hinges on the fitness - sadly so unreliable - of striker Sturridge and it remains to be seen whether he enters the January transfer market.
It is surely a sign of the game's rampant over-expectation that a manager who was on the brink of the title in May can have his future questioned in December.
Former Liverpool midfielder Danny Murphy told BBC Sport: "Brendan Rodgers has earned the right to have a bad spell because of the way he moved the club forward so quickly, but he knows he has to do a lot better.
"What will be crucial is whether the board back him in January and let him bring in another striker and give him money to spend.
"He has earned the right to see the season through. I don't think for one second he is under real pressure."