Juan Mata’s brilliant brace handed Manchester United a key victory over rivals Liverpool and a big boost in the race for the top four after an action-packed encounter at Anfield that also saw Steven Gerrard sent off.
Mata scored in either half – his second a jaw-dropping acrobatic effort – to overshadow Daniel Sturridge’s second-half goal in a typically tense United-Liverpool encounter with Simon Mignolet even saving Wayne Rooney’s stoppage-time penalty.
Louis van Gaal and Brendan Rodgers both kept unchanged teams from their respective wins over Tottenham and Swansea, with Angel Di Maria, returning from suspension, and Gerrard, Liverpool’s outgoing captain, unable to force their way into the starting line-ups.
United arrived at Anfield with an unfavourable record; in 10 visits since 2006, the Reds have won three, drawn one and lost six. Van Gaal, however, arrived with customary confidence: “Anfield is not a very easy ground for United but now I am manager here, maybe I can change that.” Naturally, he took Liverpool’s threat seriously after they had racked up 14 games unbeaten at home and were undefeated in the league since United’s 3-0 win in December.
It was a typically rapid start with Liverpool pressing hard and United seeking to control possession. With Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and Mata pulling the strings in midfield, that’s exactly what United did, particularly in a dominant first 30 minutes.
And, on 14 minutes, Mata put the visitors deservedly in front. Marouane Fellaini slipped a pass to Herrera, who carved open Liverpool’s defence with a piercing through-ball, and Mata coolly slotted his shot past Mignolet. United continued to dominate through the guile of Mata and Herrera with Fellaini adding requisite bark and bite.
Slender leads in these fixtures offer little by way of comfort, and after 35 minutes with Liverpool upping the tempo, the 2,800 away fans were holding their breath as Henderson’s sweeping cross-field ball behind United’s defence found Sturridge, who teed up Adam Lallana but he fizzed his shot wide when he should have scored.
So, an almost perfect first half for United, while Liverpool started the second in quite the opposite fashion – half-time substitute Gerrard lasted just 42 seconds before being red-carded by referee Martin Atkinson for appearing to tread on Herrera. Keyed up to make an impression in his final Liverpool-United game and stamp his authority on proceedings, he did it a little too literally.
That ignited the match still further as tensions flared in the stands and the game, all cool and calm from United in the first half, lost its shape. That was until the 59th minute when Mata produced a moment of pure magic – latching onto Di Maria’s inviting lofted pass into the box and producing a stunning scissor-kick volley to beat Mignolet with a Goal of the Season contender.
The Reds couldn’t expect an easy ride to the final whistle and that was brought sharply into focus as Sturridge beat De Gea at his near post on 69 minutes to set up an nervous finish. But United held onto the lead, although it could have been more secure had Rooney not had a late penalty saved by Mignolet after Daley Blind was brought down by Emre Can. It’s as you were in the top four, but crucially there is a five-point gap back to Liverpool and after consecutive wins over the Merseysiders and Tottenham, van Gaal’s men have gathering momentum going into the final eight games of the season.