One of the greatest rivalries in English football, and indeed the world. Although the sides are some way apart in the table, this fixture always has the capacity to thrill with the tenacity with which it is played and the tension that it generates. A close encounter is always on the cards.
Prior to the game, all the talk was on who would come out on top between the League’s two in form strikers, Robin Van Persie and Luis Suarez. However, fans knew that battles would be won elsewhere on the pitch and were looking ahead to a tough 90 minutes. Sir Alex Ferguson named David De Gea in goal, with RIo Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic returning as a pairing, with Patrice Evra and Rafael Da Silva at left and right back respectively. In midfield, Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick paired up centrally, with Ashley Young on the right wing and Kagawa on the left. Leading the line stood Danny Welbeck and Robin Van Persie.
The opening quarter of an hour was a cagey affair, with both sides unable to produce much going forward and no clear cut chances presenting themselves. The closest it got to a goal was when Reina failed to clear appropriately and the ball was picked up by Young, which resulted in a Carrick shot which came to nothing. Around the 20 minute mark though, Kagawa, Cleverley and Carrick passed the ball in midfield before picking up the tempo and playing to Evra on the left, who fired in a low cross into the box, which was hit left footed first time by Van Persie to slot past Reina and give United a 1-0 lead.
From there, United were very much on the front foot, looking more threatening on the attack as Liverpool struggled to build up play and cause problems at the other end. Indeed, United should have extended the lead, with Welbeck presented with a couple of chances to double the lead, and Cleverley going close on the volley. The best chance occurred as injury time was beckoning, when Carrick played a ball to the right, which was well won by Rafael, who played the ball across with Van Persie attempting to flick it in, only for it to get blocked on the line, causing a frenzy on the goal line as Kagawa went in to try and finish, only for Wisdon to challenge him enough to prevent it and get the ball clear. With time taken to treat Reina, there was more injury time than originally intended as half time came at the 50 minute mark with United leading 1-0 at the break.
The second half saw changes made, with Sturridge replacing Lucas and Valencia coming on for Young. The game appeared to open up with this, with the visitors looking to push forward more as they looked to get back on level terms. 10 minutes in and a free kick is won for United in a threatening position. ~Van Persie stepped up and whipped in a ball that met Evra at the far post to head in on first impressions. Replays showed that the ball had gone across and had come off Vidic and the goal was subsequently awarded to the latter. 2-0 to United and the hosts were in control. Fans would have hoped their side would look to contain the visitors and see the game through, but there was an almost immediate response. United were dispossessed in midfield and Gerrard was able to get a shot away from the right of the goal across to get De Gea at full stretch, the Spaniard only able to palm the ball out, with Sturridge beating Rafael to the rebound the striker finished and brought the deficit back to one goal.
From there, it was the visitors who were on the front foot as they sensed an opportunity to get forward and equalise. Dominating possession they tried to get through on goal as the hosts got defensive. There were a couple of moments where the defence was tested, with Suarez and Sturridge sjowing danger as they got forward. Sturridge had a couple of shots on goal from the left that hit the side netting or went over and Suarez did well to hold the ball in the box as he tried to break through on goal, with United failing to clear. To cope with the late rally, Phil Jones was introduced in place of Kagawa as a tense end to the game looked set. Later Smalling was brought on for Vidic as all the substitutions were used up. As the minutes ticked down, Liverpool were still threatening despite the game dying down slightly, as United struggled to get out of their own half. United had a couple of chances f their own to extend the lead, Kagawa forcing a good save from Reina shooting on a rebound and Van Persie going close with a cheeky flick on the break.
However, despite the pressure, United held on, using up the 4 minutes of injury time to take the 3 points with a 2-1 victory. A tense game with both sides having their dominant spells. With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) A deserved 3 points
Given the scoreline, one might have thought it this was a close game throughout. At times it was, the opening exchanges were cagey and few opportunities came about. However, the game was really a split with United taking control after their first goal, with the second half starting out fairly evenly, and Liverpool coming into their own in the last half hour as they got a goal back. For all the tension in the second half, one felt United could have made life easier for themselves with their chances in the first half. Welbeck had more than one opportunity to fire on target, but showed he may be slightly down on confidence, Cleverley went close and Van Persie caused something of a scramble on the goal line close to half time. However, they went in at half time with the solitary goal being the difference, and when they doubled the lead, one might have thought they would looked to protect it longer than they did. Liverpool capitalised and brought the game back within reach, making for a close finale.
In all it was a good contest, both sides had their chances, and the match was played competitively without any major controversy. One could argue that Vidic was a touch offside for the goal although some may beg to differ given the way the ball was played, and the margins were too close for a linesman to call. However, in all, it would be fair to say United deserved to come away with the 3 points, although the visitors will likely take encouragement for the way they picked up when Sturridge came on.
2) Danny Welbeck – impressive up front
WIth Welbeck playing out of position down the left in recent weeks and the occasional rumour linking him with a loan move away, Sunday’s game provided him with an opportunity to impress up front with Van Persie. Although he was not my man of the match, the English striker deserves some praise for his performance as he showed energy and made good runs to cause problems for the visiting back four. This was especially true in the first half when United were winning the midfield battle and made himself known to get on the ball.
Perhaps the only issue, is that he did not score or hit the target more with the chances he was presented. Perhaps this was a sign of his lack of confidence in front of goal at the moment given the abundance of goal scorers at the moment and his chances being limited up front. However, with that performance, he may push on and discover his scoring touch.
3) An impressive midfield
One aspect of United’s play in the first half was the way in which the midfield played the ball. Cleverley, Carrick and Kagawa combined well, passing between them to build up play and quickly getting it forward when they needed to. Of these, the most impressive was Carrick, who had the most impact on the game. When United were in control, he had a large influence on proceedings, playing some quality passes forward to try and unlock the Liverpool back line. His pass to Rafael which gave Van Persie his chance near half time was the most notable of these. He ran the midfield and was another example of his quality and for me, was United’s man of the match.
4) Ashley Young unfamiliar on the right
Until his removal at half time, Ashley Young was not having a particularly good outing. He gave the ball away on a number of occasions and struggled to assert himself on the right. Admittedly, it is fairly understandable, considering he plies his trade on the left and it ended up being Rafael who had the most impact going forward. Considering United’s lack of options currently, with Nani yet to return and Valencia either off form or carrying an injury, United had little option, with Kagawa taking up the left wing. It is unclear if he was taken off due to the knock he appeared to take in the first half or whether it was thought Valencia would be more effective, but fans will be hoping it is the latter as another winger on the injury list would be problematic for Sir Alex.
When Valencia came on, he actually did fairly well, holding the ball well as he got forward and providing cover with Rafael on the right. If he is carrying an injury, the sooner he can get some time on the sidelines the better, but one cannot help but feel there is an element of lacking confidence in his game at the present time.
5) Sloppy defending for the goal
With Liverpool on the attack in the second half, it was expected that United would be under pressure. With Jones being brought on, it was almost as if United were prepared to see out the remainder of the game in such a fashion. In fairness, United did fairly well to hold off the advances, although the visitors provided a few dangerous moments to level the game. Players did their part to defend though, as Van Persie was left up front on his own, the rest stayed back as the hosts struggled to move out of their own half. They could have done better to clear the ball at times, but as the clock drew down, De Gea did not find himself tested massively besides the goal. The away side broke through and had chances but did not force the Spaniard into saves often.
With regards to the goal, conceding immediately after scoring gave Liverpool life and the confidence to get forward. It was sloppy, with the ball given away cheaply in United’s own half, Gerrard capitalised and fired a low shot at De Gea, forcing him to stretch out, only able to palm it with Sturridge eventually getting on the end of it.
I do not believe De Gea is to blame for that, considering he was at full stretch, but rather it was the defences for failing to close down Gerrard when they could and Rafael, who otherwise had a brilliant game, for not reacting to beat Sturridge to the ball.
However, despite that, 3 points were won in a hard fought contest, and United continue on, facing Tottenham next weekend.