The game even had a cameo appearance from Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard who was sent off just 43 seconds after coming on in his final appearance against Manchester United for a stamp on Ander Herrera.
It was a pure moment of madness from Gerrard who can have no complaints about the sending off, which took place right in front of referee Martin Atkinson. Not only did Gerrard’s actions damage their top-four chances in this match, it means he will miss the trip to Arsenal after the international break and the FA Cup quarter-final replay at Blackburn four days later.
While Gerrard’s indiscipline played a role in Liverpool’s first league defeat since losing 3-0 at Old Trafford, Liverpool were a poor second to United most of the game.
Goals in either half from the outstanding Juan Mata, the second a brilliant volley led United, although a Daniel Sturridge goal 20 minutes from the end offered a glimmer of hope for Liverpool fans, but Brendan Rodgers side nevere seriously threatened David De Gea’s goal in the last 20 minutes.
Much had been made of the success of Brendan Rodgers’ 3-4-2-1 formation he first used in that defeat at Old Trafford, but once again in a big game, Rodgers was found wanting tactically. Louis van Gaal had United playing a high midfield four behind lone striker Wayne Rooney meant Mata and Ashley Young were pushed into advanced positions and the former, in particular, used it to great effect against the relatively inexperienced Alberto Moreno.
Rodgers never made a tactical adjustment and both United goals came down Moreno’s side. The first came in the 14th when an Herrerra pass split on the Liverpool defence allowing Mata minute threaded a pass between the two Liverpool to run onto and clip a shot past goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.
Then a piece of magic Mata put United two up as Mata finished off a clever reverse pass from substitute Angel di Maria to acrobatically volley home. Coutinho teed up Sturridge to score his fifth goal of an injury-disrupted season and although Liverpool made a valiant charge late, they could not break down a United defence that has looked a lot stronger in recent weeks than it was earlier in the season.
United even afford for Rooney to have a penalty saved by Mignolet in added time after Emre Can’s foul on Daley Blind. Victory allowed them to open up a five-point gap over their rivals and stay within two points of second-placed Manchester City in what Van Gaal has labelled a rat race.
While the Gerrard red card will get all the headlines, to me this was a game won on tactics, and van Gaal got it right, and Brendan Rodgers could not make the necessary ingame changes to give Liverpool a chance.