Clinical finishing and yet another inspired performance by David de Gea helped Manchester United to a sixth straight victory all competitions with a 3-0 win over fierce rivals Liverpool at Old Trafford. In a match lacking the quality befitting a contest between England’s two most successful clubs, United prospered thanks to first-half goals from Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata, the first aided by some errant Liverpool defending and the second by the failure of the officials to spot a clear offside. Robin van Persie’s effort 19 minutes from time made sure of the three points and ensured revenge for Liverpool’s victory by the same score line in this fixture last season.
The difference between the two teams in March was stark, with Liverpool pushing for their first title in 24 years and United heading for their worst season since that same 1989-90 campaign. Nine months on, the change in both teams has been extreme. While United are on course for a return to the Champions League, Liverpool are facing up to an increasingly tough challenge to get back into a competition they exited on Tuesday evening.
As has been the case throughout a winning run that has seen them rise into third-place and now establish a three-point cushion over those below them, United were hardly exceptional. But what they did do was take their chances, something that, critically, Liverpool could not. Much credit for that, though, must go to De Gea. As a consistently changing team in front of him continues to find their feet under Louis van Gaal, United’s goalkeeper has been the truly outstanding player. This was one of his best performances yet. Raheem Sterling had chances to give Liverpool the lead, pull them level and give his side a route back into the match in the second half. On all three occasions, De Gea denied Liverpool’s prime attacking threat. When Mario Balotelli was introduced at halftime, De Gea three times ensured that the summer signing remains without a Premier League goal for the Merseysiders.
At the other end, Brendan Rodgers had finally lost patience with Simon Mignolet and promoted Brad Jones between the posts. But the Australian showed why Rodgers had preserved for Mignolet for so long, despite the uncertainty he breeds in the back line. Jones was already diving the wrong way when Rooney met Antonio Valencia’s pull back on the edge of the box to put Manchester United in front in the 12th minute. And he again committed himself bizarrely early when Mata feinted to shoot before finding Van Persie to tap in a result-clinching third goal. The contrasting performances of the two goalkeepers was key in the result and the emphatic nature of it.
But the mistakes on Liverpool’s side weren’t just from their goalkeeper. After Valencia stuck the ball through the legs off Joe Allen to get free down the right, Philippe Coutinho allowed Rooney to run off him to give the boyhood Everton player and fan a moment to savor. The second goal was allowed to stand, despite a flick on from Van Persie that made Mata offside before he headed in at the back post. But the offside was hardly by the design of Liverpool’s snoozing defenders. The final, third goal, perhaps the worst of the bunch, came when Liverpool were left three-on-three and Dejan Lovren produced a woeful clearance straight to Mata to set up Van Persie.
This was a rare Premier League contest featuring both teams playing in a back three. Yet, while the 3-0 score line was hugely flattering, it was United that, despite still missing a number of defenders and with Michael Carrick operating at center-back, appeared to have a much better grasp of what was required of them.
Not that there isn’t still much to work on for Van Gaal. United’s passing, as was Liverpool’s, was awfully sloppy at times. Sterling, starting in a central striking role, almost capitalized on one misplaced pass to give Liverpool the lead, but his effort, not for the last time, lacked conviction and De Gea saved. Two more chances for the quick-footed forward followed before the break, but both were directed at United’s unbeatable guardian.
De Gea’s ability to be in the right place at the right time was exceptional. After an errant back pass from Jonny Evans in the second half, Sterling raced clear but the Spaniard took advantage of the forward’s dallying to get in a block. His best, though, was saved to frustrate Balotelli. From Sterling’s pull-back the former Manchester City striker looked destined to score as his first-time shot from close range curled toward the top corner, instead De Gea reached out a hand to tip it onto the crossbar.
While they couldn’t score and they left on the end of a convincing loss, the second half in particular did provide enough to encourage Rodgers. With Balotelli and Sterling in tandem and Coutinho an influence, Liverpool looked more dangerous going forward than they have done in some time. Yet the fact remains they could end this round of fixtures in the bottom half of the table. And, although only seven points off fourth place, they have now lost ground on one of their key rivals for a Champions League place. They will come up against another in Arsenal next week, when another defeat could go a long way to ensuring that Tuesday’s draw with Basel was Liverpool’s last Champions League outing for some time.