'Tormented' De Gea a great concern for Ferguson
Patrice Evra's ordeal concluded with his Manchester United captain's armband tossed away in the despair of defeat on the Anfield turf. For David de Gea, the torment shows no sign of ending.
Evra, as the script inevitably dictated, played a pivotal role in events with the eyes of the football world trained on Anfield amid the fall-out from the Premier League meeting between Liverpool and United in October.
Liverpool's Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez watched from the stands with his family, suspended for eight games after being found guilty by the Football Association of racially abusing Evra, who took his place as a central character in the drama of this fourth round FA Cup tie.
Calls for calm from both camps fell on deaf ears in thousands of cases as Evra was subjected to constant jeering and taunts throughout - along with vociferous claims from Liverpool fans that, to phrase this politely, his evidence in the case was less than reliable.
Evra was booed throughout the match when he touched the ball. Picture: Getty
The abuse flowed to and fro between supporters but Evra coped coolly with his detractors until one fatal moment of hesitation allowed the satisfaction of leaving Anfield with at least a draw to escape him.
With two minutes remaining of what, for the large part, was a tepid encounter on the field Evra took his eye off Liverpool substitute Dirk Kuyt, allowing him to find Andy Carroll's flick and beat De Gea for the winner.
It gave Liverpool revenge for last season's FA Cup loss at Manchester United, extended a winless Anfield streak for Sir Alex Ferguson that stretches back to 2007 and allowed Dalglish to conclude a memorable four days with a winning smile.
Evra looked suitably devastated at the final whistle - but it will be the demeanour of young Spaniard De Gea that will cause even greater concern to Ferguson.
This was the goalkeeper carefully selected by Ferguson and his scouting team as successor to Edwin van der Sar when he finally stepped out of the game at the end of last season.
Too many good judges had earmarked the 21-year-old, who arrived for £18m from Atletico Madrid, as one of the game's outstanding young talents for him to be dismissed as a transfer bust after less than a season in England. He deserves more time and respect than this.
But it is also impossible to ignore the evidence of United's season and at this stage of his development he does not look physically or technically equipped for the demands of the Premier League. Every flaw was on show at Anfield.
Ferguson may now rue his decision to restore De Gea in place of Anders Lindegaard, but this - given the sub-plots swirling around Anfield - was certainly the arena in which to test exactly where his keeper currently stands under full examination conditions.
The results were not impressive and it would be a major surprise if he was not back on watching brief when United face Stoke City at Old Trafford on Tuesday.
De Gea's day started with a decent save from Maxi Rodriguez before descending at an alarming rate into indecision and uncertainty with hands and feet.
He was betrayed by bigger United figures in the penalty area when Daniel Agger headed Liverpool in front from Steven Gerrard's corner, but his abject failure to make his presence felt in what should be his territory made the Dane's task easier than it should have been.
And after Ji-Sung Park put United on terms and the game had entered a lengthy sterile period in the second half, De Gea offered some of Liverpool's best hopes of a goal with goalkeeping that bore all the hallmarks of a personality riddled with nerves and struggling desperately for confidence.
He sidefooted a routine clearance close to goal straight to Stewart Downing, who was possibly too surprised to make anything of the gift, then allowed a routine cross to slip through his hands for the needless concession of a corner.
These moments went unpunished but in the context of the game gave Liverpool - and their supporters - encouragement they were not receiving elsewhere on the pitch.
Indeed, he looked so shaky at one point in the second half that if he was an outfield player there would have been a compelling case to remove him from the action.
For long spells United controlled possession, with Paul Scholes treating the ball with the sort of loving care and attention normally only reserved for close relatives and friends. It was only when Scholes was removed, presumably tired, that Liverpool were able to build up a serious head of steam that ended in victory.
A glance at De Gea in his penalty area in the second half, alone with the action elsewhere, revealed a solitary, almost sorrowful, figure. He carried the body language of a player who is suffering a torrid time, the sort of experience he has not had before.
De Gea was backed by Sir Alex Ferguson after the game, despite his unconvincing performance. Picture: Manchester United
Ferguson retains faith in De Gea but mistakes, important ones, have occurred too often this season. If he struggles to make that slight, at least by modern goalkeeper standards, frame noticed in his area then at least his handling has to be secure.
Instead all parts of his game and physique look fragile. Too many good things were said about De Gea prior to his arrival for so many people to be wrong, so it may need a further period of adjustment, acclimatisation almost, before Ferguson sees the goalkeeper he thought he had bought.
It will be, however, a real test of the young man's character because the Premier League is an unforgiving environment and the standards at Old Trafford makes it even more unforgiving club than most.
Liverpool's win allowed them to make the journey from ignominy at Bolton to Wembley in the Carling Cup final and the FA Cup fifth round in seven days, ousting Manchester City and Manchester United along the way. The questions about manager Kenny Dalglish have been silenced for now.
The emphasis will shift to Ferguson with United out of the FA Cup, Champions League and, much less significantly of course, the Carling Cup. It is the Premier League and Europa League that will hold his attention now, with focus firmly on the former.
United simply do not carry the old steel that a Gary Neville or Roy Keane would give them, but the talk of serious difficulties must be placed in context as Wayne Rooney, Nani, Nemanja Vidic, Phil Jones, Ashley Young and others were absent here.
There can be no escaping the conclusion that Ferguson faces some serious questions about squad strengthening in the summer - and the questions about De Gea may have to be dealt with even sooner.