How many times will you witness a game this season where a side runs out 3-0 winners, yet their goalkeeper is man of the match?
Well, ask David De Gea, as on Sunday afternoon he put in another world-class performance against arch-rivals Liverpool at Old Trafford, reclaiming the bragging rights after a deeply contrasting match in March.
By simply seeing the scoreline, you might assume that United were dominant and ran out comfortable victors in a game where they were favourites to win a ‘big game’ for the first time this season. Such was not the case, as even Manchester United fans might reluctantly wonder how Liverpool didn’t, at the very least, get on the score-sheet.
David De Gea put any chance of a Liverpool breakthrough to rest, with a display that will catch the eye of many clubs across Europe, as he finally begins to show why United paid Atletico Madrid £17 million for him.
Just 25 seconds prior to the home side opening the scoring, the Spaniard was called in to action to deny Raheem Sterling – who led the line up-front for Liverpool – after being neatly put through by Adam Lallana. United went on to counter-attack and, following some clever play from make-shift winger Antonio Valencia to beat Alberto Moreno, he teed up Wayne Rooney to slot home past replacement goalkeeper Brad Jones, who served as one of the big surprises in the pre-match build-up.
Liverpool weren’t to be despairing after going a goal-down and continued pressing the United defence, who looked shaky and picked up a couple of yellow cards for their troubles.
Sterling was denied once again, after crafting his way through, but had his effort blocked by De Gea, who the Red Devils’ defence would have been congratulating after the game. Once Sterling’s effort had passed, Liverpool continued threatening, but didn’t create any goal-scoring opportunities. It was clear that Liverpool needed a finisher if they wanted to get back into the game.
With a slice of luck for the home side, Liverpool’s misery was doubled as United increased their lead, with Juan Mata scoring from what seemed to be an offside position after a microscopic flick from Robin Van Persie, following Ashley Young’s cross, which placed the ball beautifully in Mata’s path. The Spaniard finished the move and United headed into the interval two to the good.
Who else would come on as a substitution at the break but the Premier League’s pantomime villain Mario Ballotelli, who made his first appearance since a 1-0 defeat at Newcastle in early November. He replicated the form that he has shown so far this season and was sloppy in possession and ultimately failed to break through the United defence.
His first real opportunity – after some optimistic efforts from outside the box – came when Sterling played him through. The Italian managed to guide the ball on target, only to have it halted by a Neuer-esque save from De Gea, who pushed the effort on to the bar and away from goal. Missing such a golden chance saw Balotelli try his (lack of) luck from 30-yards, only to see it curl away from goal. It wasn’t to be Ballotelli’s or Liverpool’s afternoon.
Prior to the Italian’s efforts, Raheem Sterling had yet another clear-cut chance minutes after the second-half commenced, when a sloppy back-pass from Ashley Young was seized upon by the youngster, who failed to slot home and instead poked the ball straight at De Gea. The Spaniard did superbly to adjust his feet, yet despite the immense pressure placed upon Sterling to lead the Liverpool front-line, he should have scored and will likely be criticised excessively for failing to do so.
The missed chances were rightfully punished by a Manchester United side ebbing with confidence up-front, as Robin Van Persie finished a neat move involving both Rooney and Mata, who were credibly unselfish in the build-up.
3-0 United, game over.
National and International newspapers will almost certainly be on Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers’ case tomorrow. Piling pressure will increase further on the Northern Irishman’s shoulders, but I believe we’re more likely to see a P45 being handed in at Anfield, after a potential defeat at free-scoring Bournemouth in the League Cup on Wednesday.
The Championship side will go into their game bereft of the underdog title that was initially placed upon them. The Cherries won 5-3 against Cardiff on Saturday, extending their incredible run of scoring in every home fixture so far this season. They have only failed to score in two games all season, so Liverpool will have to find a goal, or potentially more, if they want to progress to the semi-finals.
Sacking Rodgers – what with the pressure from fans and the media – would seem a hasty decision, considering he was voted manager of the season in 2013/14.
Granted, he did have Suarez and Sturridge at his disposal and it’s reasonable to claim that his transfer business during the summer was hardly wise. However, following a lacklustre draw against FC Basel last Tuesday night, Liverpool needed to play well at Old Trafford, which they did. Their new-look line-up made more chances than United and, although you get no points for creating chances, at the very least, Liverpool gave the game all that they had. If the exact same fixture was played again next weekend, the result would probably be completely different.
United’s win means they maintain their impressive third position, three points above fourth placed West Ham, and five points behind rivals Manchester City, who sit in second place. Liverpool, however, remain in a dreary tenth place, trailing to Swansea, who concluded the weekend fixtures with defeat against Tottenham, and Newcastle, who suffered a drubbing at Arsenal.
It may seem inept to point out, but the Merseysiders are only six points ahead of Burnley, who sit just above the relegation zone – although that could alter if fellow strugglers QPR grab a point in their away trip to Everton on Monday night. Going in to the new year within touching distance of the relegation zone is cause for concern at Anfield and could potentially result in Rodgers’ sacking – the players will need to put in Sunday’s shift every week to prevent circumstances from worsening.
An assured performance from Liverpool, but Christmas isn’t giving generously on Merseyside, in what has been a season to forget so far.
Manchester United, however, are beginning to go places under Louis Van Gaal, who is gradually restoring the spirit at Old Trafford, Although their performances haven’t been easy on the eye, they are racking up the points and look likely to head into the new year in a top-four spot.