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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.