1. A game of two halves.
Normally this cliché applies to the 45-minute intervals played before and after halftime, but in this case, the game was divided into how the teams performed in the other team’s half of the field.
United carved a few openings out of Liverpool’s back three; the away team created far more chances against United’s trio but failed to convert even one of them. Wayne Rooney scored the first goal for United against the run of play less than a minute after Raheem Sterling had raced past defender Phil Jones and shot into goalkeeper David De Gea’s legs. Antonio Valencia set up Rooney by bursting past Joe Allen, who had no cover behind him on Liverpool's left side, and cutting back a diagonal ball Rooney hit sweetly first-time.
The rest of the game was straight out of “Groundhog Day”: an opportunity squandered by Liverpool and United occasionally threatening on the counter after it had struggled mightily for much of the first half. In addition to the leg save, De Gea stopped Sterling with a right-hand stab and a comfortable catch of his header in the first half alone. Jones also atoned by denying Sterling with a perfectly timed sliding block.
United’s second goal also resulted from flank play, though Ashley Young’s in-swinging ball from the left side clearly clipped the top of Robin Van Persie’s hair as it arrowed to the back post, where Juan Mata lunged to head it into the net. Mata, not offside when Young struck his cross, was clearly beyond the last defender when Van Persie got his slight touch on the ball but the flag stayed down and referee Martin Atkinson gave the goal.
Sterling’s confidence further eroded when he latched onto a terrible back pass that left him alone with De Gea, who stoned him yet again. Van Persie ruthlessly punished a poor clearance to net United’s third goal three minutes after a superb fingertip save by De Gea directed a rising blast from substitute Mario Balotelli onto the crossbar.
2. Dynamic De Gea instrumental in another win.
One of the few bright spots of United’s brutal season under former manager David Moyes, who departed last April, was De Gea’s emergence as one of the Premier League’s top keepers.
The Spaniard had been beset by shaky moments since signing from Atletico Madrid in 2011, but despite United’s seventh-place finish and front-office turmoil he racked up accolades in 2013-14: the team’s Player of the Year in separate votes among its players and fans, and a Save of the Season honor from Match of the Day.
De Gea had been instrumental in United’s 2-1 defeat of Southampton on Monday. Outplayed for most of the game, United won its fifth straight game thanks to De Gea’s saves and two goals by Van Persie. Victory number six stemmed from De Gea’s eight saves and the type of finishing that has plagued Liverpool this season, which is one reason last year’s Premier League runner-up sits 10th in the league and was been eliminated in the Champions League group stage.
United manager Louis Van Gaal changed his entire back line from the Southampton match, and his team defended rather poorly for much of the game yet thanks to De Gea posted a shutout. Central defender Michael Carrick did such a number on Adam Lallana that Rodgers removed him at halftime in favor of Balotelli, who made his first appearance since early November.
3. Liverpool hot seat is heating up.
So sharp have been the barbs aimed at Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers that his statement “I’m the only man for the job” was splashed across a page of the tabloids leading up to the match. He might not be the only man for much longer, as last year’s second-place finish has ratcheted up expectations among Liverpool fans desperate for the glory years -- 18 league titles, five European Cup/Champions League triumphs -- to return.
Named Manager of the Year just seven months ago, Rodgers and Liverpool aren’t adjusting well to life after Luis Suarez, who took his 69 Liverpool goals and numerous suspensions to Barcelona last summer. A heavy dose of spending the Suarez money (around $100 million) and more has brought in talented players such as Lallana, Balotelli, Rickie Lambert, Lazar Markovic, Dejan Loveren and Alberto Moreno, and each disappointing result increases the frustrating at Anfield.
Liverpool would not be the first team to overspend giddily upon tasting limited success and dumping all blame on the manager when things didn’t go well. Once Liverpool qualified for the Champions League, his third season at the club was destined to be the toughest of Rodgers’ career, and there’s little in his stints at Watford, Reading and Swansea City to draw upon in this cauldron of criticism.
By contrast, Van Gaal’s personnel decisions have yet to produce much sparkling soccer, yet he has game-breakers at his disposal. Liverpool failed to contend with Maroune Fellaini deployed as a buffer for Rooney in central midfield with Young and Valencia attacking on the wings, and Mata in support of Van Persie. Steven Gerrard squandered several set plays by hitting poor deliveries that were easily cleared.
Rodgers can rightly lament an erroneous refereeing decision on Mata’s goal and his attacking tactics were spot-on. But managers must battle through rough spells when their players can’t carry out the commands, and the Liverpool board will have to stand strong if Rodgers is to carry on.
TRIVIA. One of the lineup surprises was Brad Jones taking over for Simon Mignolet in the Liverpool goal. Jones had been an unused sub for 98 straight league matches, a record.
Dec. 14 in Manchester
Manchester United 3 Liverpool 0. Goals: Rooney 12, Mata 40, Van Persie 71.
Manchester United -- De Gea; P.Jones (McNair, 89), Carrick, Evans; Fellaini; Valencia, Rooney (Falcao, 78), Mata, Young; Van Persie, Wilson (Herrera, 71).
Liverpool -- B.Jones; Johnson (Toure, 26), Skrtel, Lovren; Henderson, Gerrard, Allen, Moreno (Markovic, 68); Lallana (Balotelli, 46), Coutinho; Sterling.