Liverpool 1 Manchester United 2
Steven Gerrard’s short but memorable farewell to this most combustible of English fixtures will live long in the memory, but the more relevant impact from Juan Mata’s two-goal performance can be seen in this morning’s Premier League table.
Liverpool’s breathtaking run since their last meeting with United in December – 21 domestic games without defeat – was brought to a shuddering halt by a magnificent performance that earned Louis van Gaal’s side a five-point cushion over the Merseyside club in the chase for fourth place and Champions League football.
Gerrard’s moment of temporary insanity, sent off for stamping on Ander Herrera barely 30 seconds after appearing as a half-time substitute, was the outstanding feature of a fixture that rarely fails to deliver.
But the way in which United picked apart their old rivals, even during the 45 minutes in which Liverpool had their full complement of players, suggested that van Gaal’s players are hitting their stride at precisely the right stage of the season.
“I am very happy we have won and that we have made a gap between fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and that we can still look up and we can also win the second position for example,” said the United manager.
“Now it is significant because we are five points ahead of Liverpool and if we lose the game we were one point behind. It is very significant, I think.”
Mata was the game’s stand-out figure, at least as far as footballing matters were concerned. His two goals ensured that Wayne Rooney could even afford to see a 93rd minute penalty well saved by Simon Mignolet as United ended a run of just one win from their last seven visits to Anfield.
After a dominant start, Marouane Fellaini’s short pass to Herrera after 13 minutes was then slipped majestically inside the Liverpool back three for Mata to sprint on and finish superbly into the corner with his wrong, right foot.
Thirteen minutes into the second half, and twelve and a half minutes after Gerrard’s rush of blood, Mata settled the points as he played a one-two with substitute Angel di Maria before converting with a quite stunning acrobatic scissors kick that flew past Mignolet from 16 yards.
“It was very important for me obviously,” said Mata, who has featured only sparingly under van Gaal. “The last months I haven’t had the best moments but, as I always say, I’m the same player I was when I came to England. I have the same passion, the same desire. Obviously the manager decides and I’m happy today for the team because we came here with a difficult game ahead and did it very well.”
It was a devastating blow for Liverpool who had ended the first half finally clicking into their stride, with Adam Lallana wasting a glorious chance to equalise after 35 minutes when he planted a Daniel Sturridge square pass just wide of David de Gea’s goal from 17 yards.
When Liverpool did finally gain a foothold in the game it was through Sturridge, after 69 minutes, and a rare slip by de Gea who was beaten at his near post by the England forward who took a pass from Philippe Coutinho in his stride and scored via a slight deflection off Phil Jones.
There were half chances in both areas before the injury-time penalty, awarded after an Emre Can trip on Daley Blind, which Rooney struck too close to Mignolet who saved well.
But the more compelling issue was becoming who would join Gerrard in seeing a red card from referee Martin Atkinson. Jones might have done, but escaped with a booking for an assault on Jordan Henderson; substitute Mario Balotelli had already been booked when he tussled off the field with Chris Smalling and had to be held back by his own supporters; Rooney lashed out, kicking the ankle of Mignolet after challenging for an aerial ball and Martin Skrtel clearly stamped on de Gea at the end of the game.
Little wonder that with 16 red cards in the Premier League era, Liverpool’s meetings with Manchester United are second only to Merseyside derbies (20 reds) as the most volatile fixture in English football.
“It brings to an end a run that has given us an opportunity,” said Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers. “Now, after this defeat, we will get a reaction and finish the season strongly.
“We knew the points total we felt we would need and knew there would be a couple of defeats along the way. Obviously we’re disappointed to lose at home against a rival but it is still very much up for grabs. We will continue to fight until our last game against Stoke.”
LIVERPOOL (3-4-3): Mignolet 6; Can 5, Skrtel 6, Sakho 6; Sterling 7, Henderson 7, Allen 6, Moreno 5 (Balotelli 65, 5); Lallana 5 (Gerrard 46, 0), Sturridge 8, Coutinho 6. Subs: Jones, Johnson, Toure, Lambert, Lucas.
MANCHESTER UNITED: (4-1-4-1): De Gea 6; Valencia 6, Smalling 7, Jones 7, Blind 5 (Rojo 90); Carrick 8; Mata 9, Herrera 8 (Falcao 82), Fellaini 7, Young 6 (Di Maria 54, 6); Rooney 5. Subs: Valdes, Rafael, Januzaj, Pereira.
Referee: M Atkinson 7
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