Regardless of time, place, date, league standings, or level, there is no better feeling as a Manchester United fan than beating Liverpool on their own patch. If we have had to endure some bitter pills where results are concerned, most notably last month, this victory tastes particularly sweet in comparison. People have found it too easy to fall into the trap of over-dramatising the significance of Liverpool versus United fixtures down the years. These games are not necessarily season defining–especially when both clubs are on the outside of Europe looking in–but they do tend to be the moments which stick in the memory at season’s end. Mata’s brilliance at Anfield, Martial’s grandest introduction to Manchester United, Berbatov’s hat-trick, Cantona’s late cup final winner and so many more This meeting means that much more to us.
Sunday was a massive game as far as both sides’ top four aspirations were concerned, much like the corresponding fixture last season. It was big for Louis van Gaal, too, still not totally out of the mire with United fans after a wretched and painful eight-game winless run all but ended any title ambitions. At least the Dutchman continued his unblemished record in the Premier League against United’s biggest rivals. Okay, it won’t give him the keys to the city or universal endearment among our supporters, but last week I speculated whether a victory at Anfield would catapult our fortunes for the rest of the season. There’s no getting around the fact this kind of result does give players and supporters belief we could actually go on a run. The question is, how far?
Naturally, the doom-mongers will not be appeased even by a victory at our biggest rivals. Even though the style could justifiably be questioned on Sunday, sometimes it is all about grinding out a victory when you’re not playing with particularly sparkling stuff. Many will push the point United have seldom been sparkling under Van Gaal, but for so long winning ugly was seen as the hallmark of successful sides. Mission Anfield was a case of leave Merseyside with three points after throwing away a costly two on Tyneside in midweek, or self-destruct in ninety minutes with Red Devils supporters disavowing any knowledge of your actions. Mission accomplished. Thank you, Mr Van Gaal.
There has been both pandemonium and euphoria surrounding the undoubted, arguably only, world-class player United have at their disposal during both United versus Liverpool encounters this season. In the home half of the derby, David De Gea’s first start after his protracted move to Real Madrid collapsed at the last minute was more sheer relief, almost disbelief, that De Gea was donning the badge of Manchester United once again. It was not out of disrespect or disdain towards Sergio Romero–okay, maybe it was a little bit–that De Gea received such a rapturous and deafening ovation on his return to the side, but the Spaniard is second only to Manuel Neuer in the keeping stakes. Put your hand down, Thibault Courtois. He is just THAT good, almost irreplaceable.
In the away encounter, his ongoing impersonation of the Great Wall of China kept Liverpool at bay and United in the game. The double save, the first in particular, from Emre Can, then Roberto Firmino, was breathtaking. Shades of Peter Schmeichel, who conveniently sat in the pundit’s chair for the game. Much like the Great Dane, El Gato Madrileño’s importance to this side is unparalleled.
As long as the grass in front of the United goal is green there will be inevitable rumours he will return to his homeland one day. In fact, United were within minutes of losing their token jewel in the crown in the summer. For once, this was an administrative cock-up of the good sort. Conjecture is still rife that there could be a release clause inserted into the new deal signed after the transfer collapse. Whether De Gea is here for the long haul is open to interpretation and guesswork, but he appears committed and should be cherished while he remains.
If De Gea’s level of performance comes as no surprise, Wayne Rooney’s resurgence has been eye-opening. Somewhat understandably, Rooney, despite being on the cusp of ripping up a generations-standing club scoring record, will not be everybody’s cup of tea after you know what way back when. Say what you like about the skipper but he deserves a lot of praise for his rejuvenation in 2016. He looked a spent force in the latter stages of 2015, like fifteen years solid in the media spotlight and leading the line for club and country had taken its toll.
Since the Boxing Day benching at Stoke, Rooney has looked hungrier. There is more zest and vigour to his game and he has found that happy knack of getting a glut of goals in a cluster. He has winners against Swansea, Sheffield United and Liverpool, not to mention the two strikes up at Newcastle since the turn of the year.
For the man supposed to be the epitome and symbol of United’s travails, an issue exacerbated by he and Anthony Martial being the only out and out striking options, Rooney’s purple patch in front of goal is driving Van Gaal’s side to a potentially dynamic-changing winning sequence. For the moment at least, it has been the perfect riposte to his doubters, who will never fully be silenced.
The two players mentioned are fundamental to how far United can go in 2016. An in-form De Gea and revitalised Rooney give United guaranteed performances at either end. Louis Van Gaal may have drawn some sniggers and chuckles of derision in his bold assertion that United can still claim the unlikeliest of league titles. Whether it is totally out of the question could very well hinge on the aforementioned duo.
On the other hand, beating Liverpool on their own turf will mean nothing if the run is not continued at home to Southampton on Saturday. It is time to kick on.