Unbeaten in 2015, they said. Steven Gerrard’s last hurrah, they said.
This is the undoubted fixture that we all dread the most as ardent United supporters, the noisy neighbours do not even come close in terms of rivalry- no matter how much money they spunk away trying to get there. Those of a particular age, having to endure the unparalleled worst nightmare of seeing Liverpool dominate for a nigh-on double decade, will never miss an opportunity to hammer home the importance of this fixture to the fresher faced United fans. It must have been hell.
There is always a sense of relief when the Anfield fixture is done and dusted for another season, however the professional performance in the lion’s den was the ideal antidote to that usual overriding nauseating feeling that taints this titanic fixture.
The patent conclusions of Manchester United this season have invariably revolved around us riding our luck and that one of two scenarios would come to the fore, in light of the well documented away fixtures to come: Either Lady Luck would cast her gaze elsewhere or United would find their feet at last. On yesterday’s evidence, it would appear the latter has come to fruition in the most critical of times and testing of arenas.
This was the sternest of acid tests for Louis Van Gaal’s United. People rightly pointed out that one swallow does not make a summer, one victory over a shambolic Spurs would not be the corner completely turned. If United were to lay down a marker, another psychological blow on a top 4 rival, they would start to turn heads and the doubters may start to abate. Let’s make no bones about it, as filthy as it was to say, Liverpool had some serious momentum coming into the fixture. Which makes not only the manner of, but the result as a whole all that more sweeter.
There is no better feeling, and it felt massive.
Gary Neville, who knows the enormity and magnitude of the fixture better than anyone, alluded to silencing the crowd and diffusing the hostilities that 45,000 screeching Scousers try and impart on the game. We all know that when their crowd are up and they press with the ferocity fitting of the occasion, it is hard to cope with. So for us to play with such composure and calmness and carry on in the same vein as Tottenham last weekend in such an environment really was testament to Van Gaal’s transformation having the desired effect at last. When Red Nev declares that was the best United showing at Anfield in his lifetime, it would be callous to challenge that claim.
We are starting to see Van Gaal’s philosophy bore fruits at last, the 4-3-3 system is working a treat, the players look more comfortable and are becoming more expansive compared to the risk-free, mechanical stuff we have been churning out. There can be no slacking off now just because we have opened up a nice cushion, it really is time to hammer home our advantage, especially with the fixtures against city, Chelsea, Everton and Arsenal to come, starting with Villa after the break.
There were so many good points coming from Anfield and pleasingly they were recurring positives, which is crucial in any run-in- to have players who step up to the plate when it gets to the crunch. The Spanish synchronicity between the hermanos Mata and Herrera was exquisite- they bring tempo, vision and fluency- three factors that epitomise the perfections of the much desired ‘United way’. They are a joy to watch. Van Gaal appeared to be loathed to select them both due to their reticence regarding defensive duties, with the shackles off however they have come into their own.
Chris Smalling and Phil Jones stood up to the occasion- they were strong, forceful in the challenge and did not shirk carrying the ball out of the back, something which can be somewhat Herculean to the England duo. They have showed great character and, in a way, come of age in the toughest of tests.
Marouane Fellaini continued to wreak havoc in this unique deep-lying playmaker/battering ram dual plan- his nuisance value, albeit not overly aesthetically pleasing for the purists, has been pivotal not only to our recent surge, but also in his quest to salvage his United career.
Michael Carrick’s return to the side has brought a restored composure and forward pass. His dictating of play from that deeper role has allowed Herrera and Fellaini to press higher up the pitch and restore balance in the engine room. Daley Blind has performed well in the middle of the park, but perhaps takes the safer option, whereas Carrick always has his head up and attempts to pass through the lines. His continued importance cannot be overlooked, he is still a class act in possession and the new deal signed last week was just reward for a man who is a big influence and vital cog in this side.
There have been some truly unforgettable moments to savour at Anfield down the years: Gordon Strachan tucking away and lighting his cigar, Rooney cupping his ears and getting a phone hurled at him (clever bunch them), John O’Shea’s last gasp winner, Giggsy’s double, Diego making the Scousers cry. Now add Juan Mata’s stunning scissor kick winner to that list too. If that goal proves to be decisive in the race for the top 4 come May, it would be a fitting strike- that goal was made for the biggest stage. The technique, the audacity, the execution, the celebration, everything about it was wood inducing.
A lot has been discussed about Mata since he was deemed surplus to requirements at Chelsea: the price tag, the supposed saviour of David Moyes, whether he fits in at United. One thing that cannot be questioned, however, is the quality of the man. He well and truly answered those who struggled with the pre-match selection dilemma involving himself and Angel di Maria. Those who believed Van Gaal need not meddle with that winning formula against Spurs were vindicated with a top drawer display from Mata, whose place looked in jeopardy on paper at least, with many of the view di Maria’s pace on the counter would be better suited to Anfield than the craft and guile of Mata.
With Jose Mourinho’s baffling status as this untouchable god who forever preaches gospel, everyone jumped on the bandwagon that Mata was not made for a side intent on attacking at pace and high intensity pressing from the front. Mata’s stats since coming to England are hardly comparable to those who get continually showered in praise- you do not become Chelsea’s player of the year twice and get into the PFA team of the year by accident. He is a little magician whose deserves more recognition than he gets. Regardless, that scissor kick will live long in the memory and a goal of that calibre could not have been scored by a more popular man.
It would not be a Liverpool-United game without some sort of ugly scenes, how fitting that Martin Skrtel features in that list. A deliberate stamp like that was needless but so cowardly, players react like that because they know serious injury could be inflicted. It was small time, indefensible and will be punished. Players in that situation have ample time to hurdle the onrushing keeper or sidestep out of the way, resorting to those tactics knowing the game is up was shameful. Balotelli was lucky too- a rake down Jones’ calf and a ruck with Smalling in the corner could have seen him get his marching orders. What an ending for the supposed ‘lionheart’: He was there and then he was gone, just like his chance of a Premier League medal. That slip and the stamp, the two memories our lot will remember him by. Ta ra Gerrard. But Brenda said Skrtel just isn’t that sort of player and Slippy was frustrated. OK then…
We break for the internationals now, if we had lost that it would have been a horrible period of reflection seeing us out of the top 4, psychologically yesterday was massive. The caveat is that the break is not timely for us, the momentum we are slowly building is on the back burner. With Aston Villa at OT after the break and that lot facing Arsenal at the Emirates, the five point cushion could be extended further- the perfect script as our heads hit the pillow on Saturday night.
Enjoy the rest of your week, reds. We have all the bragging rights, a fantastic double over that lot. Make sure you make the most of it, for those Scousers who have actually shown up at the office today.