Manchester United swept historic arch-rivals Liverpool aside with a fine 3-0 win to record the Reds’ sixth consecutive victory.
Goals from Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata gave Louis van Gaal’s side the comfort of a two-goal lead before half-time, with Robin van Persie clinching all three points after the break.
But United were once again indebted to goalkeeper David De Gea, who made the first of several crucial saves seconds before Rooney’s opener. A magnificent effort to touch a Mario Balotelli shot onto his bar at 2-0 kept the frustrated visitors at bay, and even after van Persie had sealed the game, De Gea was using his body and feet to prevent any kind of consolation goal for the Merseysiders.
Injuries to Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo forced Louis van Gaal to again make changes in the United backline and he opted for the experience of Michael Carrick, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans. They faced a Liverpool side playing without a recognised striker – Raheem Sterling operated as a “false nine” – and with understudy goalkeeper Brad Jones selected ahead of Simon Mignolet. For United, James Wilson was handed a start for the biggest game of his fledgling career so far.
Driven on by a predictably raucous crowd, the opening stages had United on the back foot, with Wayne Rooney clearing Martin Skrtel’s header away from just in front of the goalline two minutes into the match. Marouane Fellaini was booked shortly afterwards as the game showed all the intensity that this fixture is rightly famous for.
Sterling wasted an opportunity when, one on one with De Gea, he shot straight at the keeper, but within seconds United made the visitors pay. Antonio Valencia nutmegged Joe Allen on the right flank before pulling the ball back for the Reds skipper to curl the ball in from just inside the box with keeper Jones completely wrong-footed.
The goal, Rooney’s sixth of the season so far, had come with United’s first attack of note but for a short time Liverpool carried on as before, with De Gea again thwarting Sterling with a block at his near post. Jones, Evans, Rooney and Allen entered referee Martin Atkinson’s book for niggly challenges as the game looked to be evolving into a tense cat-and-mouse affair in midfield.
But United doubled the lead five minutes before the break, with a move starting on the opposite flank to the opener. Ashley Young, enjoying himself in the left wing-back role, whipped in a cross that was met by the stooping Mata’s head at the far post. The ball looked to have scraped the top of Robin van Persie’s head on the way over and there were some claims for offside, but the goal stood and was celebrated wildly by the Old Trafford faithful.
The visitors brought on Mario Balotelli after the break, but within a few minutes De Gea was once again the hero for denying Sterling. A misplaced back-pass allowed the England international to go one on one with the Reds keeper, but the Spaniard forced his opponent wide before making another crucial block.
The let-off roused United, with Rooney forcing Jones to make a save and Wilson flashing a shot just wide of the net. Van Persie stabbed a snap-shot just inches off target, and then De Gea stepped in again to keep Liverpool out, brilliantly touching a Balotelli shot onto his crossbar.
The keeper’s heroics proved vital when United put the result beyond doubt with just under 20 minutes to go. A rapid counter-attack resulted in Lovren scuffing a clearance to Mata who rolled the ball into the path of van Persie, who had the simplest of tasks to score with Jones hopelessly out of position.
De Gea’s excellent afternoon’s work continued when he made two further saves from Balotelli, while at the other end Jones tipped a van Persie volley over his bar. The scoreline remained 3-0 for full-time, therefore, as United’s march continues apace.
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