Wayne Rooney grabbed his fifth goal in his last four games to deliver a late winner for Manchester United at Anfield in a match in which they were decidedly second best to their fierce north-west rivals. With 12 minutes remaining, United had yet to have a single shot on target, while their goalkeeper David de Gea had pulled off a string of fine saves to keep a dominant Liverpool at bay. But after Marouane Fellaini headed against the crossbar from a short corner, Rooney followed up and blasted home into the roof of the net.

The strike continued a fine recent run for Rooney after he registered just two goals in his first 15 Premier League appearances of the campaign. While his late wonder strike against Newcastle United in midweek was ultimately in vain as Manchester United threw away the lead to draw 3-3, this time his side hung on to claim a vital three points.

And this was a very different encounter to the one against Newcastle. Gone was the flicker of entertainment that briefly permeated Manchester United’s drab season, with Louis van Gaal’s side again offering precious little inspiration going forward. Other than his goal, Rooney had been a near anonymous figure up front. Yet Van Gaal will doubtless feel that his approach has been vindicated by United this time securing the right result.

In, truth, though, had Liverpool been more decisive up front they could have won the contest decisively. Controlling midfield, passing crisply and stifling their opponents with far greater intensity without the ball, there was much to admire about the performance of Jurgen Klopp’s side. Yet they failed with the most important thing. De Gea twice saved magnificently from Emre Can in the second half, while Adam Lallana, Jordan Henderson and, in the dying minutes, Roberto Firmino all missed presentable chances. It was not hard to see why Liverpool are thought to be chasing a striker as a top priority in the January transfer window.

There were problems at the other end. This was the third match in succession where Liverpool have conceded a goal from a corner. Again a lack of authority defending a short piece cost them dear. Defeat leaves Klopp’s side eight points off the top four and perhaps now facing too large a gap to bridge in the final 16 matches of the season. For Manchester United it is a very different story, with the win taking them up to fifth place, just two points off fourth-placed Tottenham.