There will, of course, be far more coverage in the media of Gerrard’s sending off than anything else that happened in this match. It will, therefore, perhaps appear to those who didn’t see this game that United simply took advantage of having the extra man to cruise to victory. In fact, the Reds looked far more in control when it was eleven versus eleven and their display in the first half hour of this game showed an authority that, following an equally dominant display against Spurs last week, is beginning to give the impression that this, at last, is Van Gaal’s Manchester United and it looks pretty damn impressive.
Rightly, the manager selected the same team as that which convincingly brushed Spurs aside and United took the game to Liverpool in the first half, passing at pace, pressing high up the pitch and looking utterly superior to a side that, since United’s defeat of them at Old Trafford earlier in the season, had gone unbeaten in the league. Fittingly it was Juan Mata who opened the scoring, latching onto a superb Herrera through-ball to finish with precision.
Indeed, this was probably Mata’s finest display in a United shirt. Even leaving the goals aside, the little Spaniard’s touch and ability to bring those around him into the game was frequently the source of United’s best football. He was ably assisted by Fellaini, whose qualities are nothing like as easy on the eye but who nonetheless impressed by constantly harrying upsetting Liverpool’s defence and midfield, often being the player to retrieve possession on the rare occasions it was lost.
United’s superiority lapsed a little towards half-time, but Brendan Rodgers had clearly been concerned enough by what he’d seen to throw his club captain into the fray. And what an impact Gerrard had. Clearly pumped up and looking to stamp his authority on the game, he perhaps took the word perhaps too literally and, having disgracefully brought his studs down on Herrera’s shin, was rightly dismissed by referee Atkinson after less than a minute.
United initially looked in the mood to make the extra man count. Di Maria came on for Young and, although the Argentinian once again looked far from his best, his interchange with Mata brought the Reds their second goal. Having been fed in by the Spaniard, Di Maria followed his run with a return ball that Mata met sublimely on the volley for one of the goals of the season.
To give Liverpool some credit, they were clearly determined to make a fight of it. Although Gerrard was man enough to admit his wrongdoing after the game, this predictably didn’t stop the home crowd – who, after all, do exasperated outrage better than anyone else – feeling hard done by and loudly seeking greater retribution when a poor challenge from Jones brought a yellow card and when Mignolet took a ridiculously over the top tumble when mildly touched by Rooney.
In truth, it was Liverpool who were far more fortunate to escape another red: Skrtel’s challenge on De Gea at the end of the game was at least as bad as that which brought Gerrard’s marching orders. Balotelli was brought into the fray also, and a sly raking of his studs down Jones’ shin gave him a yellow card that was, again, allowed the Kop to play the victim with an intensity that no other ground in the country could match.
When they pulled a goal back, though, via a Sturridge finish that beat De Gea at the near post, a nervousness came into United’s game and there were moments when it looked like the ten men might complete an unlikely comeback. Smalling and Jones were once again steadfast at the back, however, and the introduction of Falcao late on allowed the Colombian to perform a very useful cameo, working hard to occupy the Liverpool defence while coming back to retrieve possession and ensure the ball spent a reassuring amount time of time in safer areas of the pitch.
When Blind was brought down in the penalty area deep into stoppage time, it looked like United’s passage through the final stages would be even easier. However, the forward was having a rare off day – as so often is the case against Liverpool, there was a suggestion that he was trying perhaps slightly too hard – and had already failed to run onto a cross from Di Maria when the Reds were 2-0 up. He duly placed his penalty at a comfortable height for Mignolet, who pawed it away.
It didn’t affect the result, however, and United were deserved winners. Some cause for reflection though: would the Jones-Smalling pairing have got a chance had Evans not been suspended and Rojo injured? Would Mata have found a place in the side had it not been for Di Maria’s absence through suspension against Spurs? Sometimes footballing fortunes can take a peculiar shape but there’s now doubt that, partly by accident and partly by design, this Manchester United side is at last beginning to look the real deal.