Liverpool 0 Manchester United 1: Wayne Rooney’s almost single-handed attempt to salvage Manchester United’s season, and with it possibly Louis van Gaal’s position as Old Trafford manager, continued as the club captain scored for the fifth time in four games with an exemplary finish, his first Anfield goal in 11 years.
The England forward’s contribution only told part of the story as one of English football’s showpiece fixtures disappointed for long parts, in keeping with both clubs’ respective seasons, only for United to emerge victorious and the team more likely to secure a top four finish.
Victory was also a personal triumph for David de Gea, integral to so many of United’s fleeting successes during the recent slide from grace and the player who did as much as Rooney to win the three points. Should United and Van Gaal emerge from this most trying of campaigns with some modicum of respectability or triumph behind them, the fact that De Gea did not move to Real Madrid, as expected, last summer will prove to be the greatest stroke of fortune enjoyed by the club in some time. “That is why he is our goalkeeper,” said Van Gaal, always difficult to please. “He is always reaching a very high level.
“I cannot say that today he has done a lot. He has stopped the balls that he had to stop.
“Maybe the one with one hand? Maybe. But I think he has to save it. I think a goalkeeper has to do it. I demand it. That is why he is playing for Manchester United.”
On 50 minutes, for example, it appeared that Emre Can was about to put Jurgen Klopp’s team in front after his fancy footwork in the United area took him past Chris Smalling only for the ‘keeper to keep the ball out with his legs.
The Spaniard, who had also denied Adam Lallana after 10 minutes and watched Jordan Henderson flash a shot across goal as the hosts dominated a dreary first half, produced an even better stop on 66 minutes when he flung himself to keep out Can’s blistering 20-yard drive — “the one with one hand” — and then kept out Roberto Firmino’s follow-up.
And his endeavours proved all the more pivotal when Rooney struck on 78 minutes after Juan Mata’s short corner had been headed against the Liverpool crossbar by Marouane Fellaini. The ball broke kindly for the United forward whose textbook technique saw him hook the ball into the roof of Simon Mignolet’s goal from the corner of the six-yard area. It was Rooney’s 176th Premier League goal for the Reds, eclipsing Thierry Henry’s mark for the most goals scored by a player for one club in the competition.
“To be honest, I didn’t know,” said Rooney of the record. “Obviously it’s great to have records but I don’t think that will beat the feeling I have now. To score the winning goals at Anfield, it is a long time since that happened for me — my first year at United — so I’ll be a bit selfish and enjoy that one more than most. Everyone knows the importance of this game, regardless of positions. It’s a massive game for both football clubs and the fans and a great victory.
“It’s three points we needed and to continue this start to the year, a massive victory for us.” The win also marked a second consecutive season in which United — and Van Gaal — have completed a league double over their old rivals from down the East Lancs Road; a remarkable record for the Dutchman to claim.
For all the doubts that persist in the United nation about the Dutchman, a record of played four, won four, against Liverpool is something they, and Van Gaal, should celebrate.
In keeping with both clubs’ current travails, this was a disappointingly subdued version of so many meetings in this rivalry although the supporters did their bit to bolster the atmosphere and Fellaini and Lucas were involved in an early angry spat that raised the animosity level a notch or two.
What football, and chances, there were in the first period came from the hosts, a point Rooney made in the dressing room at the interval. “We knew as a group of players and there were a few reminders from myself and the manager that this is Liverpool we’re playing and we need to be tackling more, getting to the ball quicker,” said Rooney.
“We did it better in the second half and got a chance and took it. The performance wasn’t that important today, all that mattered today was the victory and we got it.”
That was an analysis with which even Klopp could agree.
There were only two faults in Liverpool’s performance, according to the German who has now won five and lost of his 14 league games in charge — their failure to defend a set-piece and their inability to score, two rather worrying limitations. “It’s really bad, it’s a derby and in a derby you only have one job to do – to win it,” said Klopp.
Mignolet 6; Clyne 5, Toure 5 (Benteke 80, 5), Sakho 7, Moreno 6; Henderson 8, Lucas 7, Can 7; Milner 5 (Caulker 89), Firmino 6, Lallana 5 (Ibe 76,6).
Subs (not used):
Ward, Allen, Smith, Teixeira.
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-2-3-1):
De Gea 9; Young 6 (Cameron-Borthwick 42, 6), Smalling 6, Blind 7, Darmian 6; Fellaini 7, Schneiderlin 6; Lingard 5 (Mata 65, 6), Herrera 7 (Depay 71, 6), Martial 7; Rooney 8.
Subs (not used):
Romero, Varela, McNair, Pereira.
M Clattenburg 8.
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