Manchester United and Liverpool: The tables have turned

In March, Liverpool left Old Trafford with a 3-0 win over Manchester United which was as routine as it was expected.
Seven months later, United have recorded six wins on the spin as the scoreline was comprehensively reversed.

PL table full-time
Final standings: United widened the gap between themselves and Liverpool to 10 points and six places (Picture from Sky Sports)

IN March, Liverpool left Old Trafford with their Premier League title aspirations firmly alive after a 3-0 win over an inauspicious Manchester United which was as routine as it was expected.

Fast forward seven months ago and United have restored the fortress feel of the Theatre of Dreams, recording six straight wins for the first time – by virtue of a comprehensive victory of the same scoreline – since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement to leave their north west counterparts at the bottom of the table’s top half.

Liverpool finished 20 points ahead of United last term when on the brink of glory – now United lie 10 points ahead of the Merseysiders and just five adrift of their cross-city neighbours to consolidate their Champions League qualification place.

Mixed tale: Liverpool had more efforts at goal but United ran out resounding winners
Mixed tale: Liverpool had more efforts at goal but United ran out resounding winners – thanks to David de Gea (Picture from Sky Sports)

The turnaround of the two clubs – and the changing of the upper hand between the fiercest of rivals from decline to a flourish and vice versa – has been surreal.

The determination and confidence which was often missing under the dark days of David Moyes is now evident as players buy into the Louis van Gaal philosophy and reap the benefits of European football’s absence.

Louis van Gaal in Old Trafford dugout v Liverpool (14th Dec 2014)
Relaxed: The United coaching staff watched on as their team recorded a fourth straight home win (Picture from Sky Sports)

For the Dutchman, this will be the most satisfying during the string of victories with the convincing and impressive nature of the performance in his first clash against the Anfield men as a manager – despite his downplaying of their chances post-match.

He did reserve praise to one man in particular and – undoubtedly – United were once again indebted to a man of the match display from their Spanish goalkeeper.

David de Gea man of the match after the game

David de Gea was once again the invincible frame which has seen his stature of one of the world’s best shot-stoppers grow this season with a series of top quality stops.

Indeed, Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers will wonder just how his side failed to convert the hatful of opportunities that fell their way with Raheem Sterling and half-time substitute Mario Balotelli the main culprits.

The repeated chants from the United faithful of “You’re Getting Sacked In The Morning” might not ring true but the pressure will now intensify on Rodgers, who is yet to receive any sort of backing from Liverpool’s American owners Fenway Sports Group.

After losing both Premier League encounters last season, there was a feeling of a revenge mission for United – and the taste would have been sweet as the scoreline of their previous meeting with the Reds was reversed.

A seventh league defeat in just 16 games and two wins from 10 games in all competitions for a Liverpool side – who as Gary Neville alluded to in commentary had the bite but not the bark, jabs and not knock-out punches – will launch another inquest into their struggles.

Their former captain Mark Lawrenson described Liverpool as “rudderless” earlier in a week which has seen their Champions League adventure crumble and become a less-favoured Europa League campaign.

Under pressure: Rodgers has now seen his side lose seven times in the Premier League this season
Under pressure: Rodgers’ team are 12 points worse off than at this stage a year ago and have conceded 16 goals in eight away league games this season (Picture from Sky Sports)

Rodgers rightly claimed the defeat “epitomises the season” – a statement which can barely be disputed as a combination of defensive errors and profligacy in front of goal cost them dearly once more.

Van Gaal stated that it is more important for United to beat Liverpool than Manchester City and Chelsea during the season as far as the supporters are concerned.

Legend: Ferguson won 38 trophies and took charge of 1,500 games in 27 years as United boss before retiring in May 2013
Legend: The Scot, 72, won 38 trophies and took charge of 1,500 games in 27 years as United boss before retiring in May 2013 (Picture from Sky Sports)

Assistant manager Ryan Giggs – who played 38 times against the Reds during his illustrious career – had delivered a presentation with useful information on the opponents to drill home the importance of the high-profile grudge match.

This particular clash of the titans – the 191st episode stretching back to 111 years ago – may lack the significant interest of a title tussle but is still more than a football match as Gary Neville’s comparison to a glorified pub game testifies to.

The tactical dilemmas of both sides was hotly discussed in the build-up with reports emerging as early as 9am on Sunday morning – from The People reporter Steve Bates on Sky Sports’ Sunday Supplement – that James Wilson was set to be given the nod in the United frontline.

Regular: Wilson had featured in six of the previous nine Premier League games for United
Regular: Wilson had featured in six of the previous nine Premier League games for United (Picture from Sky Sports)

The 19-year-old’s inclusion for arguably the biggest game of the campaign – and only his second Premier League start – was an example of the recurring faith van Gaal entrusts in the striker and the club’s fledging youth system.

Line-up: United's three changes from the 2-1 win over Southampton came in defence
Line-up: United’s three changes from the 2-1 win over Southampton came in defence (Picture from Sky Sports)

Reverting to a back three proved to be a masterstroke – matching Liverpool in that respect – with Michael Carrick outstanding in a makeshift defensive role, Phil Jones solid on his first appearance in almost two months and Jonny Evans an able deputy for the injured Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo, who added to a four-man casualty list in training on Friday.

The chosen XI: Liverpool's team showed three changes from their 1-1 draw with Basel on Tuesday night
The chosen ones: Liverpool’s team showed three changes from their 1-1 draw with Basel on Tuesday night (Picture from Sky Sports)

If de Gea had stolen the show by the full-time whistle, the pre-match headlines belonged to Brad Jones as Rodgers – criticised in some camps for his bold selection at the Bernabeu last month – opted to hand the Australian a first Premier League start since March 2012 in place of the much-maligned Simon Mignolet.

Defending it by saying Mignolet would “benefit by being out of the spotlight”, it was a decision which was necessary but still shocked many, including pundits on Match of the Day 2 Extra.

Rare outing: The 32-year-old Australian made just his eighth Premier League start for Liverpool
Rare outing: The 32-year-old Australian made just his eighth Premier League start for Liverpool (Picture from Sky Sports)

Ex-Aston Villa keeper Shay Given was “surprised”, Daily Mirror’s Chief Sports Writer Oliver Holt felt dropping the Belgian “won’t fix their problems” and Lawrenson said it was “harsh” and “impossible to develop a relationship with the defence.”

Meanwhile, Rodgers cited the need for more aggression in his side’s play and a different gameplan as reasons for sacrificing Lucas for the creative likes of Adam Lallana and Phillipe Coutinho and starting Sterling in a ‘false nine’ position with no recognised striker.

Off day: Sterling was guilty of a number of misses which cost Liverpool at Old Trafford
Off day: Sterling was guilty of a number of misses which cost Liverpool at Old Trafford (Picture from Sky Sports)

The England international has shouldered the burden for club and country this season – the debate of tiredness and contract talks also coming into the equation – and that reliance on the 20-year-old’s ability to make things happen appears to be affecting his end product.

The Red Devils – who were “lucky” to beat Southampton on Monday according to their boss – started at a slow if not steady pace with Liverpool dictating the early tempo.

Margins are usually tight in contests such as this and the difference in taking chances was made apparent in a 25-second spell in the 13th minute.

On target: Rooney made the breakthrough for United with his fifth Premier League goal in 16 appearances against Liverpool
Captain on target: Rooney made the breakthrough with his fifth PL goal in 16 appearances against Liverpool – and first since February 2012 (Picture from Sky Sports)

From the moment Sterling was denied brilliantly by de Gea at one end, Coutinho failed to track the run of Rooney and the ex-Evertonian rubbed salt into the wounds after fine wing-play from the wing-back Antonio Valencia to escape the attentions of both Joe Allen and Alberto Moreno.

United continued to ride their luck – de Gea standing firm once again to thwart Sterling – whilst looking expansive and pacy in most areas – even with the all-action Angel di Maria sidelined.

Man in form: Young has now started the last four Premier League games as a left wing-back for United
Man in form: Young – who has played as a wing-back for much of the season – has now started the last four Premier League games (Picture from Sky Sports)

Marouane Fellaini – who like Rooney was a former Toffee with extra hunger to get one over the Reds – was a diligent presence in the middle of the park while Ashley Young’s maturity and positional discipline was a sight for sore eyes.

As is the case in modern-day encounters of this magnitude, it was littered with yellow cards and niggly fouls which brought some inconsistent refereeing – at times – from Martin Atkinson.

Offside: Mata appeared to have strayed beyond the last defender before nodding home United's second
Offside: Mata appeared to have strayed beyond the last defender before nodding home United’s second (Picture from Sky Sports)
Man for the big occasion: Mike Mullarkey was a linesman in the World Cup and Champions League finals of 2010
Man for the big occasion: Mike Mullarkey was a linesman in the World Cup and Champions League finals of 2010 (Picture from Sky Sports)

It was a decision from one of his assistants that was under scrutiny during the half-time break, nevertheless, as Juan Mata stooped to head home the insurance goal for United.

There appeared to be no infringement on first glance when Young’s centre was flicked on by Robin van Persie into the path of the Spaniard, who was at least a yard offside – a fact only made clear by television replays that Mike Mullarkey does not have the benefit of seeing.

To continue the complete contrast of March, almost everything transpired against Liverpool and lady luck simply deserted them.

Enforced: Former Manchester City defender Kolo Toure replaced groin injury victim Johnson
Enforced: Former Manchester City defender Kolo Toure had to come on to replace groin injury victim Johnson (Picture from Sky Sports)

Glen Johnson lasted just short of half-an-hour before departing through injury at a time when Liverpool had possession but no penetration while the arrival of Kolo Toure did little to prevent their rearguard being frequently exposed.

In all fairness – for large periods – both defences were as vulnerable as one another but United had the killer instinct and clinical streak to punish the frailties of their visitors.

Having warmed up throughout the interval, Mario Balotelli made his comeback after six games out with a groin problem but the Italian – on the scene of his two-goal salvo three years ago where he brandished the famous “Why Always Me” jersey – had another off day which only added to the debate of his suitability and a discerning lack of contribution.

Woeful record: Balotelli, 24, has scored just twice in 15 appearances in all competitions for Liverpool this season
Woeful record: Balotelli, 24, has scored just twice in 15 appearances in all competitions for Liverpool this season (Picture from Sky Sports)

The dual which de Gea had enjoyed with Sterling in the first half merely transferred to Balotelli in the second as the long wait for a first Premier League goal in red went on – a combination of the woodwork and de Gea’s reflexes denying him his clearest opening.

Even when the United defence were susceptible and error-prone, the formidable de Gea came to the rescue – exemplifying the need for a goalkeeper to be on top of his game.

Key moment: David de Gea thwarted Raheem Sterling midway through the first half
Key moment: David de Gea thwarted Raheem Sterling midway through the first half (Picture from Sky Sports)

Sir Alex Ferguson once claimed that a keeper would earn a team 15 points per season – and it must have crossed the mind of Rodgers just where his side would be if they had a stopper of De Gea’s calibre as opposed to the hapless Mignolet.

At the other end, United’s attack was in menacing mood with van Persie – fresh from his two goals at St Mary’s – again proving his worth despite comments against his old age by capitalising on more hesitant Liverpool defending.

Familiar foe: Van Persie has now scored seven goals in his last 10 Premier League appearances against the Reds
Familiar foe: Van Persie has now scored seven goals in his last 10 Premier League appearances against the Reds (Picture from Sky Sports)

Dejan Lovren – identified by Jamie Carragher as one of their main weaknesses this season – was not decisive enough in his clearance which landed straight to Mata, who manufactured a simple finish for an onside van Persie to net his seventh career goal against the Merseysiders.

With a fine balance running through the team and an electric atmosphere around the ground, it was an afternoon in which it felt everything had come together for van Gaal and United – who could even integrate Radamel Falcao and Ander Herrera back into the fold after injury.

Fresh legs: Herrera had also come on as a substitute against Saints as he works his way back from an injury lay-off
Fresh legs: Herrera had also come on as a substitute against Saints as he works his way back from an injury lay-off (Picture from Sky Sports)

Given the fact they have rediscovered their nack to take maximum points when not at their best, their resurgence is ominous and will serve as a warning to their rivals.

Carrick believes there is no reason why United should be ignored in talk of the title race and their die-hard fans will be starting to believe the same.

It took effort and patience to stick with van Gaal and his methodical approach during the difficult early weeks of the campaign when draws with Sunderland and Burnley could be regarded as fortunate results.

But – with United now nine points better off than at this stage 12 months ago – improvement in all areas has been noticeable and things are timely coming together ahead of the busiest and most defining period.

Manchester United fans arriving at Old Trafford (14th Dec 2014)
Arriving in numbers: United fans were optimistic their team could record another famous win over their bitter rivals (Picture from Sky Sports)

It could be make or break for Rodgers too in the next seven days – even more so if Championship leaders Bournemouth can spring a surprise in the Capital One Cup on Wednesday night and Arsenal can build on their victory over Newcastle when they visit Anfield next Sunday.

The Northern Irishman said he is the best man to take the club forward this week and believes he is under “no additional pressure” in the wake of this demoralising defeat – watched in the stands by his predecessor Kenny Dalglish.

Watching brief: Dalglish, who was sacked in May 2012 after his second spell in charge of Liverpool, was an interesting observer at Old Trafford
Watching brief: Dalglish, sacked in May 2012 after his second spell in charge of Liverpool, was an interested observer at Old Trafford (Picture from Sky Sports)

But, with the gap between the Reds and leaders Chelsea now standing at 18 points, individual mistakes becoming almost customary and the quality of his squad being questioned, these are testing times and Rodgers knows the responsibility ultimately lies at his door.

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