Manchester United dealt Liverpool a major blow in the battle for a Champions League place, with Juan Mata’s double handing them a 2-1 victory at Anfield. Mata scored in each half, the first after a fine sweeping move that encapsulated the positive start of Louis van Gaal’s men, and the second a brilliant acrobatic volley. In between Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, in likely his final appearance in this fixture, was extraordinarily shown a straight red card less than a minute after coming on as a half-time substitute. A frenetic and increasignly fractious second period continued with Daniel Sturridge pulling a goal back for the hosts, but United had enough to hold on, despite Wayne Rooney seeing an injury-time penalty saved by Simon Mignolet.
The win takes United five points clear of their great rivals in the fourth and final Champions League place, with just eight games of the season now remaining. It also brings to an end Liverpool’s sensational run of form. Brendan Rodgers’ side had not lost in the Premier League since going down 3-0 at Old Trafford three months ago.
That was the match in which Rodgers first introduced a three-man backline that has played such an instrumental role in the team’s rejuvenation this season. But Van Gaal, perhaps inspired by the impressive way Swansea City negated the Merseysiders for long periods last Monday, got his players to shut down Liverpool’s key midfield area, especially in the opening 45 minutes. Denying Liverpool any time on the ball, United were confident and fluid on it, building on their best performance of the season in a 3-0 win over Tottenham a week ago. Again integral to that improvement was Mata. Keeping his place ahead of the available again club-record signing Angel di Maria, the Spaniard added silky touches throughout, and decisively so with two exquisitely taken finishes.
But it will be Gerrard’s contribution of a very different kind that likely gets an equal amount of attention. Brought on to try and turn the tide of a vital contest, the 34-year-old soon to be LA Galaxy player showed none of his vast experience, allowing the emotion of the occasion to spectacularly get the better of him with a foolish stamp on Ander Herrera. So often the hero for Liverpool through the years and just days after having his professionalism vociferously backed by his manager, Gerrard let his teammates down emphatically on this occasion.
Even before Gerrard’s reaction left Liverpool down to 10 men, they already faced an uphill task. United continued where they left off last week, beginning at a ferocious tempo to deny Liverpool any time on the ball and display swift incision when in possession. To a startling extent, it was United with the ball for the vast majority of the opening half, overloading Liverpool in multiple areas of the pitch.
And they were in front inside 14 minutes. Marouane Fellaini, who was a constant outlet both in the air and on the ground, moved the ball onto Herrera for the Spaniard to pick out his compatriot running in behind Alberto Moreno. Mata still had plenty to do on his weaker foot and from a challenging angle, but he did it superbly to beat Mignolet across goal.
It wasn’t until the final minutes of the first 45 that Liverpool began to have any joy. As the visitors intensity began to drop off just slightly and gaps began to appear, Liverpool could and surely should have taken advantage on the break. With their best move of the match, Jordan Henderson picked out Sturridge, who laid off for Lallana to have a clear sight of goal, but fire wide of the post.
The disappointing former Southampton man was soon to be taken off at halftime. The thinking behind Rodgers’ decision had perhaps included freeing Raheem Sterling from a right wing-back role that had seen him close to anonymous in the first half. But Gerrard’s assuredness and playmaking ability had also been sought, only for the plans to unravel spectacularly within 35 seconds of the restart.
And soon after Gerrard’s dismissal, the contest looked to be over. A minute before the hour mark, Mata combined with substitute Di Maria, running onto a return ball from the Argentinean that was slightly behind him but for which he adjusted his body superbly to go airborne and volley into the corner of the net. The result could have been put beyond any doubt when Di Maria soon broke clear down the left, but just failed to pick out an open Rooney in the middle.
And Liverpool ensured a tense finale when pulling a goal back with just over 20 minutes remaining. After Michael Carrick was caught in possession, Philippe Coutinho picked out Sturridge, who got the benefit of a slight deflection off the boot of Phil Jones to beat De Gea at his near post.
Jones had earlier been involved in another of the game’s feisty moments when going in late on Henderson to earn a booking. Rooney could perhaps have been given more than that when, seemingly deliberately, swinging out a leg to bring down Mignolet. Despite the sterling performance of his team, Rooney’s individual display had been a disappointment. And that continued when, after Emre Can bundled down Daley Blind, his penalty was struck at a good height for Mignolet to repel.
But this was emphatically United’s day. Having stumbled unconvincingly through much of the season, they have found their form at just the right time. Matches against Manchester City and Chelsea in the next month should hold no fear, and even second-place, now just two points away, should be in their sights.