By Greg Stobart at Anfield
A moment of magic and a moment of madness. Among all the chaos of the biggest fixture in the English football calendar, two split-second events will be remembered for determining Manchester United’s victory at the home of their bitter rivals.
On the one hand, we saw Juan Mata’s scissor kick in the 59th minute, his second goal of the game and one which ultimately secured United’s victory. It was a thing of beauty, worthy of winning any match. Time seemed to stand still as Mata jumped in the air, contorted his body and met Angel di Maria’s scooped pass with a perfect left-footed strike into the far corner from 12 yards. The Spaniard’s first goal had been excellent – a smart shot to finish a fine team move – but this was something special.
Then there was the idiotic stamp from a player who should know so much better. Just 38 seconds after coming on as a half-time substitute, Steven Gerrard drilled his studs into Ander Herrera’s shin, seeing the red mist and a red card.
Gerrard has graced this fixture on so many occasions but the Liverpool captain, in his last appearance against United, let his club down. That he was prepared to front up with a post-match interview was admirable – though he pointedly apologised to everyone but Herrera – but that should not be allowed to excuse his idiotic actions. The 34-year-old will have to watch the next three games of his farewell tour from the stands as the Reds try to claw back a five-point gap to the top four.
Just what was he thinking? At the time, the Reds were a goal down but well in the game. Gerrard’s dismissal left them with an almost impossible task.
He had been mercilessly abused during the first-half as he warmed up on the touchline in front of the visiting United supporters. ‘Have you ever seen Gerrard win the league?’ they crowed before mocking him with a well-worn chant about his famous slip against Chelsea last season. There would have been additional frustration at failing to start the game, but Gerrard should know so much better.
For 17 years, everything Gerrard touched turned to goals and gold. But last season will be remembered for the fall that let in Demba Ba as hopes for a first title in 24 years evaporated. And, sadly, this is the defining moment of Gerrard’s season so far. He will hope he can end his Liverpool career on a higher note by lifting the FA Cup in May.
Liverpool pressed as hard as they could to dig Gerrard out of trouble here and set up a tense finish when Daniel Sturridge snuck in a powerful near-post strike in the 69th minute. But United always looked in control and the usually calm Louis van Gaal would have erupted had his side managed to let the points slip away.
On the back of last week’s impressive 3-0 victory over Tottenham, United started the game with a similar level of intensity, pressing Liverpool into mistakes and settling the hostile Anfield atmosphere with their classy use of the ball.
Michael Carrick set the tempo of the game with his progressive passing from the base of the midfield, Marouane Fellaini caused problems up front, and Mata added the stardust in the penalty box. The midfielder has struggled somewhat since his £38 million switch to the club last January but this was his best performance in a United shirt, a watershed game and a reminder of why they spent so much money to bring him to Old Trafford.
He opened the scoring in the 14th minute as he latched on to a beautiful pass from Herrera and swept the ball into the far corner with his right foot. His second was even better, a Mark Hughes-esque volley to take advantage of United’s man advantage.
United needed Mata at his best as Wayne Rooney once again struggled to hit the heights at Anfield. He has now failed to score at this stadium in 10 years and he missed the perfect opportunity to end that drought with a late penalty that he struck far too close to Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.
It was almost the last kick of the game, though, and it didn’t matter in the end. What did was Gerrard’s idiocy and Mata’s magic.
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