Manchester United survived a second-half fight back to claim a fourth straight Premier League victory with a 2-1 triumph over Liverpool at Old Trafford.
For much of the encounter between these two great rivals, United dominated in a manner befitting the huge gulf that currently separates them in the Premier League standings. When Patrice Evra’s header took a decisive deflection off Nemanja Vidic to put the home side 2-0 up early in the second-half it was the least that they deserved.
But Liverpool, with Daniel Sturridge coming on at the break, produced a much improved showing in the second period and the recent signing from Chelsea struck soon after to bring them right back into the reckoning. But Sturridge missed a late opportunity to equalize and United, deservedly over the 90 minutes, were able to see the game out and take, temporarily at least, a 10 point lead in the league standings.
Electing to start with Sturridge on the bench, Liverpool began the match conservatively as they sat deep and allowed United, and Michael Carrick in particular, to dictate play.
Few inside of Old Trafford will have been surprised as United took the lead 19 minutes in. United put together a move of the type of short passing in crowded areas of which Brendan Rodgers wishes to see his Liverpool side display. Tom Cleverley found Evra in space out wide and the full-back’s drilled low cross was met perfectly by the boot of Van Persie to sweep the ball past Pepe Reina.
It was a match hyped as a meeting between the Premier League’s two standout players this season—Van Persie and Luis Suarez. But there was only one of them having influence throughout the opening half as Suarez was left isolated, with Liverpool’s midfield and the wide players Raheem Sterling and Stewart Downing failing to provide support.
United will feel that they should have gone into the break further in front. Van Persie’s finishing for once let him down as he side-footed Ashley Young’s pass over the bar, while Danny Welbeck twice came close as he had a shot well blocked and then fired off target.
There was drama right at the end of the period too. Van Persie’s flick toward goal was cleared off the line by Martin Skrtel before Shinji Kagawa clattered strongly into Pepe Reina as he tried in vain to put home the rebound.
A second goal had certainly been coming and it finally arrived 10 minutes after the break with Van Persie and Evra again at the heart of it. This time the Dutchman was the supplier with a teasing free-kick to the far post and Evra was allowed a free jump to send a header back across goal that struck the head of the unwitting Vidic to beat Reina.
Just as it was looking as United would be in for a comfortable remainder of the afternoon, Liverpool struck with a goal out of nothing two minutes later. Liverpool’s greater pressing high up the pitch in the second-half paid dividends as Carrick produced a rare careless pass and Liverpool pounced with Steven Gerrard firing a low shot at goal. David de Gea got his hand to the ball but could only push it a few yards in front of him allowing Sturridge to take advantage of Rafael’s slowness to react and side-foot home.
United tried to produce a quick response with Kagawa curling an effort from the edge of the box that Reina dived to palm wide. But the flow of the game had now changed considerably, with Liverpool pushed higher up the pitch and Sturridge’s presence allowing Suarez to have greater involvement.
The two forwards nearly combined to forge an opening, but for once the Uruguayan’s touch deserted him in the box.
Rodgers also called upon the returning Fabio Borini to try and provide more of an attacking threat. The summer signing almost made a big impact but he fired wide after United again gave away possession in their own third.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s concern about his side was shown as Phil Jones came on to provide an anchor in the midfield in place of Kagawa.
United were now firmly in the position of hanging on and were grateful for a glorious chance missed by Sturridge with five minutes remaining. Rafael and the rest of his defense failed to clear the ball from the feet of Suarez in the box and Sturridge missed the opportunity to earn him instant adulation from the Liverpool fans as he side-footed over the bar.
Sturridge missed a more difficult chance wide of the near post late on, while a fine flick by Van Persie almost made the match safe for his side in the dying moments.
There were again aspects of the performance to concern Ferguson, but no side currently looks to be able to take advantage and in Van Persie they have a player capable of making the difference week after week.