Steven Gerrard went two for three from the penalty spot to help move Liverpool back up to second in the Premier League courtesy of what was a comfortable 3-0 victory over a ramshackle Manchester United at Old Trafford.
For the visitors, it wasn’t a swashbuckling display of the kind they have produced so often of late, but it didn’t need to be up against yet another listless United performance. Instead, it was an impressively controlled display from Brendan Rodgers’s side as they got their first win at the home of their fierce rivals in five years. The two penalties that propelled Liverpool on their way to victory were indicative of the sloppiness of United’s play.
Rafael’s blatant handball provided Gerrard with his first chance to convert late in the first half, with the Brazilian extremely fortunate not to have been given a second yellow card. The home side’s hopes for a turnaround in the second half were undermined just 25 seconds after the interval when Phil Jones shoved Joe Allen in the back and Gerrard beat David de Gea from the spot once more. After Nemanja Vidic was handed a second booking following what appeared to be a dive from Daniel Sturridge, only a post prevented the Liverpool captain from becoming the first player to score a hat-trick from the spot. It was to offer little respite for the shambolic hosts, though, and Luis Suarez scored late on to emphasize the gulf between the sides.
After Chelsea’s defeat on Saturday, Liverpool have taken full advantage and are now right in the mix for the Premier League title. If the Reds win their game in hand, they will be just a point off the summit. The contrast couldn’t be sharper for the latest victims of their superb run of form. At this point last season United were 28 points clear of their North West foes. They now trail them by 14 points. The Champions League provides Moyes with his only chance of salvation from a wretched season but on the evidence of this showing, it would be unwise to think that they will overcome a 2-0 deficit to Olympiakos on Wednesday.
The warning signs were there from the off for United, with Liverpool’s front two getting in behind their defense all too easily. Sturridge misfired with a couple of chances, while the first penalty appeal of several was waved away for Marouane Fellaini’s challenge on Suarez.
In contrast to his counterpart, Rodgers had got his tactics spot on. With Raheem Sterling operating at the point of a diamond, rather than out wide, and Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson behind him alongside Gerrard, the visitors dominated the center of the pitch. With United playing Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj in the wide positions, who were always looking to come inside, United were shockingly sterile. Without a clear plan of how to go about breaking down a Liverpool defense that has looked vulnerable this season, any sort of tempo to United’s play was also sorely lacking.
The decision-making of Moyes’s team also left much to be desired. Just past the half-hour mark and having just been booked for a poor foul on Gerrard, Rafael stuck out his arm to prevent Suarez from taking the ball past him on the byline. Referee Mark Clattenburg got the penalty decision right, but should have also produced a red for Rafael. Still, while not a man down, Gerrard coolly ensured that United were a goal down from the spot.
United’s best moment of the match came right at the end of the first half when Wayne Rooney’s controlled effort was parried by Simon Mignolet. That might have been expected to be a catalyst to a much improved second half showing from the home side. Instead that effort incredibly proved to be the only shot on target for United throughout the 90 minutes. And just seconds after the restart they were two goals behind.
Jones’ blatant arm stuck into the back of Allen was clumsy in the extreme, and again Clattenburg had a simple decision to point to the spot. Gerrard again went to the right, this time low and hard into the corner.
It was a blow from which United never looked capable of recovering. Yet, given the struggles of his team, it was still hugely surprising that Moyes failed to make a change until 15 minutes from the end. The United boss appeared as devoid of ideas as his players.
With 12 minutes remaining, Sturridge ran right through the heart of the United side, but then went down despite Vidic’s desperate lunge making no contact with the Liverpool forward. While it was a clear dive, the United captain arguably has little ground for complaint about his dismissal given the lack of control in his challenge. Gerrard this time went the other way with his spot kick, but the foot of the post prevented him from claiming a unique hat-trick.
Undeterred, Liverpool would still have their three-goal margin of victory. With six minutes left on the clock, Sturridge’s shot deflected into the path of Suarez and, after a glorious first touch, the Uruguayan finished expertly.