Manchester United, 4th place, and Liverpool, 5th place, met this week at Anfield in a pivotal match in the 2015 Barclays Premier League season. Both teams were desperate for the victory and three points to finish in the top four of the league table. United and Louis Van Gaal entered the match with an air of confidence after a strong, commanding performance against Tottenham. Liverpool and Brendan Rogers matched that conviction with their own impressive run of form, undefeated since their first meeting with United in December. The match was built up as a yet another epic clash between the two most successful clubs in English football and Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard's final match against United. Its memory will be mired by the Liverpool skipper's brief, controversial appearance in the second half.
Louis Van Gaal got United to click again this week, and he did so in this most logical manner; he finally displayed some consistency in his team selection, not letting his preference in tactics or availability from injury or suspension dictate his squad. United lined up in the same 4-5-1 formation that produced 3 goals against Tottenham. David De Gea, the best goalkeeper of the BPL, started in net. His backline consisted of Antonio Valencia, who has made tremendous strides since his miscue against Arsenal, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, and Daley Blind. In midfield, Van Gaal chose his top-form midfielders Ashley Young, Ander Herrera, Marouane Fellaini, Michael Carrick and Juan Mata, his key selection. Wayne Rooney started as the lone striker.
United held a decisive advantage in possession during the first half of the match. In the 14th minute, the advantage translated into a goal. Fellaini began an incisive move on goal, maintaining possession in midfield and feeding Ander Herrera. Herrera's next touch produced gold, as he slid a long through ball pass into Juan Mata, who finished the move with his weaker right foot into the side netting. Phil Jones escaped an early debacle of tackle without a yellow card, which proved vital as he was shown a yellow for a challenge on Jordan Henderson later in the match(many, Liverpool supporters and otherwise, believe it could have been red). Jordan Henderson started a Liverpool move to goal that was squandered when Adam Lallana's shot found De Gea flat-footed, but went begging wide.
The second half began with Steven Gerrard's inclusion into the match for Lallana, and although brief, it was extremely impactful. After entering into a brisk challenge with Juan Mata, Gerrard found himself on the receiving end of a sliding challenge by Ander Herrera. Gerrard, aggravated by the challenge, which did not even touch him, lashed out and stamped on Herrera's ankle. The referee was keen to Gerrard's misbehavior and immediately showed Gerrard the red card. Gerrard's influence on the game lasted the rest of the match, but his appearance on the field lasted a mere 41 seconds.
After a strong, but brief performance, where he managed to attack the left side of the field, pinning Raheem Sterling in defensive positions, not allowing him to attack, Ashley Young was substituted for Ángel Di María. Di María did extremely well with his early touches. After Mata started a give-and-go passing move on the edge of the area, he produced a precise through ball pass into the box, providing Mata the opportunity for the extraordinary. Mata finished the move towards the net with a well-placed bicycle kick that stunned Anfield and beat Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.
Mario Balotelli entered the match with a similar fury to Steven Gerrard's, receiving a yellow card just a minute into his appearance. He also got into a near tussle with Chris Smalling, requiring that Liverpool supporters on the sideline hold him back.
Michael Carrick turned in a strong performance, but it carried one blemish. He lost possession of the ball in his own half, which Philippe Coutinho used to Liverpool's advantage. After a successful dribble, he played a pass through to Daniel Sturridge, who beat David De Gea at his near post with Liverpool's first and only shot on target.
After a dazzling through ball pass from Di María, Daley Blind made a run into the Liverpool box, causing some danger to their net. His dribble required a challenge from Liverpool defender Emre Can. The challenge was late and brought down Blind for penalty. Surprisingly, Wayne Rooney went to the spot, not Juan Mata, who could have attempted a hat trick. Rooney's penalty attempt was well saved by Mignolet.
In the final moments of the match, there was even more controversy. Martin Skrtel chased a through ball pass into the box. David De Gea smothered the pass, but Skrtel made contact with the keeper shortly before vaulting him, in fact deliberately stamping on the Spaniard. Skrtel received no yellow card for his misdoing, but the Football Association issued him a three-match suspension.
The Red Devils are finally playing cohesively with some swagger, both offensively and defensively, and Van Gaal can be praised for finally trusting in his players that are performing. It was rare occasion that a chosen starting eleven played back-to-back matches, however, just like earlier this season, it produced results. Hopefully, Van Gaal can maintain this momentum through consistent squad choices, but the players also need to continue performing well in training and matches. This upcoming weekend is an international break, so United do not play until the following weekend on Saturday, April 4th. United play Aston Villa, a team near the bottom of the table, but actually turning things around in a last ditch effort to end the season clear of the relegation zone. The match will be played at Old Trafford and aired on NBC Sports Network at 10:00 AM ET.