A scintillating match at Anfield saw Juan Mata bookend his brace around a shocking red card for substitute Steven Gerrard less than a minute into his appearance, and Manchester United buoyed its place in the Champions League race by beating 5th-placed Liverpool 2-1.
Michael Carrick, Marouane Fellaini, and Ander Herrera bossed the midfield in the first half, leading to Mata’s opener before 15 minutes and causing Brendan Rodgers to shore up his midfield at halftime. But bringing Gerrard on proved costly, as the legendary Red had an uncharacteristic moment of blinding idiocy when he stamped on Herrera, causing Atkinson to send him to the showers just 48 seconds after coming on.
The teams began both promising on the attacking end but both sloppy there as well, ending many bright attacks. But despite Philippe Coutinho’s impressive start, it would be Manchester United to take the initiative early.
Ander Herrera put through a brilliant through ball up the pitch to Mata, and the Spaniard torched Alberto Moreno down the flank to the ball. Mata struck the ball on his right foot and cut it across the face of goal, past Simon Mignolet and tucked into the far post for the opening goal on 14 minutes.
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The visitors continued to press very high up the field, causing numerous Liverpool turnovers in the middle third. Phil Jones was lucky before the half-hour mark to get off without a booking after crunching into Adam Lallana, leaving his England teammate in a heap. Lallana stayed on, but it may have affected him. On 35 minutes, Sturridge laid off to Lallana wide open at the top of the box for Liverpool’s best chance yet, but he slammed it wide left with just De Gea to beat.
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A blistering strike from distance from Michael Carrick would wrap up the first half, with Manchester United firmly on top tactically. To fill his midfield, Brendan Rodgers brought on Steven Gerrard to replace Lallana who could not continue after his earlier thumping knock. Seemingly a positive substitution, it would change things in a completely unexpected manner.
Shockingly, after just 48 seconds on the field, Gerrard was sent off by Martin Atinkson, a straight red card for stamping Ander Herrera on the leg following a solid tackle. For all the glittering compliments Gerrard has received this season – his last in the Premier League – it was completely out of character, and he walked off shaking his head.
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The move reduced Rodgers’ side to 10 men and left them horribly out-manned in the midfield. Louis van Gaal responded by going for the kill, bringing on Angel Di Maria less than 10 minutes later.
Things got physical following Gerrard’s red, and Phil Jones was lucky to earn just a yellow after hammering Jordan Henderson on the touchline. But van Gaal would be rewarded for his substitution as Manchester United would make 10-man Liverpool pay. Di Maria picked out a running Mata down the edge of the box, and the Spaniard scored his second in spectacular fashion, scissor-kicking the ball past Mignolet for his second of the day.
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But it wasn’t as over as it appeared. After Wayne Rooney nearly killed the game off by catching Mignolet in possession, Daniel Sturridge somehow slammed a ball off a tight angle past David de Gea to pull Liverpool within one. It appeared to possibly deflect off Jones before it headed towards the net, beating the in form Spanish goalkeeper.
The game continued to teeter on edge, and it got even more confrontational. Chris Smalling was a the center of a few heated moments, the most interesting on the touchline with 10 minutes to go as Balotelli threw him into the advertising boards, and it appeared a fan potentially stopped Balotelli from confronting Smalling and getting sent off.
Liverpool threw everything forward in an attempt to get an equalizer, and looked promising – if risky – down a man. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t come off despite some positive attacks, but heroics at the back kept them in it. Emre Can shoved down Daley Blind in the penalty area in stoppage time, as Martin Atkinson pointed to the spot. But Wayne Rooney’s penalty was saved well by Mignolet, keeping the Reds in it at the moment.
David de Gea made a last-ditch save at the end and had words with Martin Skrtel, but the full-time whistle went and Manchester United picked up a massive three points to put them five points clear of the Reds for the final Champions League spot.
Liverpool: Mignolet; Can, Skrtel, Sakho; Henderson, Allen, Moreno (Balotelli 66′), Sterling, Lallana (Gerrard 46′); Coutinho, Sturridge.
Goals: Sturridge 69′
Discipline: Gerrard (straight red) 46′
Manchester United: De Gea; Valencia, Jones, Smalling, Blind (Rojo 90′), Carrick, Herrera (Falcao 83′), Mata, Fellaini, Young (Di Maria 55′), Rooney.
Goals: Mata 14′, 59′