There have been bigger meetings between these sides, sure. Manchester United and Liverpool have contested cup finals during their long and bitter rivalry; this derby was for the rather less prestigious prize of a place in the Premier League’s top four, and a chance to take part in next season’s Champions League. But the feeling that United had landed a significant blow in that particular race with victory on Sunday was inescapable, and after another dramatic, fiery Anfield clash, Louis van Gaal and his players had turned in the sort of performance and result that many, even in their own fanbase thought unlikely.
Steven Gerrard’s moment of madness has understandably garnered the most coverage in the match’s post-mortem, and what a memory he leaves behind as his final contribution to this fixture; snapping into a tackle with Juan Mata, rousing The Kop from its frustrated state and then stamping on Ander Herrera’s leg after the Spaniard had offered a riposte that made little contact. His baffled reaction when Martin Atkinson branded the red card was false; he had to go. It’s not uncommon for even the most seasoned veteran to allow pressure, intensity and the sense of occasion get to them, but Gerrard’s sending off means the Liverpool skipper might have given Anfield a second definitive moment in the space of twelve months for all of the wrong reasons. Worse still for him, this provided the narrative for another opportunity to add to the burgeoning collection of ditties that United’s fanbase have reserved for a favourite muse. This, like his slip against Chelsea last April has serious ramifications, not due to Gerrard’s suspension (Liverpool had been coping fine without him) but the fact that until that point, at 0-1, his team were still in with a chance of salvaging something from a game that United had threatened to play them out of. With a five point gap now present between the two clubs, all of the momentum is with Van Gaal’s men at a crucial point in the season.
These last two victories against Tottenham Hotspur and at Anfield have been epiphanies; there has been verve, purpose and genuinely exciting football in United’s performances where there often hasn’t been this season. For the first half hour, Liverpool were barely in the game. Marouane Fellaini’s renaissance negated the home side’s talented midfield and his colleagues were simply sharper, quicker to every ball and refused to allow their opponents any time to settle. Juan Mata’s first goal was timely, with United’s early dominance needing a goal. When it came, it was further proof of this current formation’s uses, Ander Herrera picking out a perfect pass inbetween Alberto Moreno and Mamadou Sakho to pick out his countryman. Mata zipped through on goal and fired past Simon Mignolet before greeting the corner flag to a joyous kick. Had Adam Lallana slotted home from Liverpool’s one first half chance from Daniel Sturridge’s lay-off, then Gerrard would have entered the fray in happier circumstances, but his team had spent the majority of the opening period unable to get out of second gear. For once, it appeared that the visitors were be the ones who understood the importance of starting this fixture with purpose.
It didn’t last. Liverpool looked significantly better after the sending off, and Sturridge’s 77th minute strike offered home of a famous result, with David de Gea left stranded by Phil Jones’ slight deflection and the ball diverted away from the Spaniard’s reach at his near post. Thankfully, United were protecting a two-goal cushion at that point, with Mata delivering the kind of moment that will also surely become immortalised in United’s matchday repertoire. Angel Di Maria delivered something of an almost performance having replaced the injured Ashley Young after half time, but his most significant contribution was to land a useful pass in the Spaniard’s direction after Mata initial pass had arrived at his feet just outside Liverpool’s penalty area. Initially, its height appeared to have done Mata a disservice, until the former Chelsea man sprang into the air and delivered a sumptuous volley into the bottom left hand corner of Mignolet’s goal. It was a fantastic strike, worthy of winning any game, and offers further proof that there is a place for Mata in Van Gaal’s plans. Indeed, should he continue to offer performances on this level, it will become impossible to leave him out.
United relaxed after Gerrard’s red card, and appeared unwilling to kill the game off. Sparing the hosts almost backfired, with the momentum firmly with the home side as the game concluded and Wayne Rooney missing a late penalty. Emre Can’s simplistic bundling-over of Daley Blind for that spot-kick was one of few forays into dangerous territory for Van Gaal’s side with the man advantage, which made for some unnecessarily uncomfortable viewing after Sturridge’s lifeline. Yet even taking this into account, United had still turned in their best performance at Anfield in many a year. The mind struggles to recall one that contained purpose on this level in the Premier League era, certainly.
It means that Van Gaal’s side can enter the international break full of confidence with fixtures against Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal still to come, with a chance to overtake their nearest and dearest should they dispatch Aston Villa in twelve days time. Such a feeling was almost unthinkable after defeat to Arsenal in that FA Cup quarter final tie, yet the loss and its self-destructive nature appears to have galvanised the team. Two victories against rivals both desperate to reach the top four is impressive enough, yet United have failed to produce a performance over 90 minutes, and won on both occasions. The thought of what they could accomplish on this sort of form next season with a few personnel changes might give several teams pause for thought.
Liverpool ended this match riled up, visibly bristling at United’s insistence on shutting down their best assets and were lucky to leave the pitch with ten men. Skrtel’s deliberate stamp on De Gea’s leg at the end of stoppage time will likely lead to a suspension that could dent Liverpool’s aspirations even further, especially with Arsenal their next opponent. Elsewhere, Mario Balotelli continues to be a comfortingly destructive presence at Anfield, kicking Phil Jones to earn a booking almost immediately after his second half introduction and having to be restrained by some quick thinking supporters after tussling with Chris Smalling on the touchline. That his team were in part to blame for their own downfall here must cause Brendan Rodgers real concern, with their incredible run of form now sandwiched by two significant defeats at United’s hands. Van Gaal, on the other hand, labelled the victory one of his most important as a manager, and preaching caution after such a satisfying high is testing. For his team and its fanbase, this was the sweetest of afternoons. Solidifying their place in the top four was the bottom line; that it came at the expense of their greatest rivals in their own backyard made it infinitely sweeter.