Spirits were high this weekend in Old Trafford ahead of the rivalry clash between Manchester United and Liverpool. Last week, United continued their unlikely, almost undeserved winning streak with a tense 2-1 victory over Southampton. Liverpool was keen on victory after their elimination from the Champions League and previous goalscoring woes in Premiership play.
Both managers employed 3-5-2 formations that proved to guarantee open-ended football with plenty of scoring chances. David De Gea, who has been in stellar form during the win streak, earned another start, the only United player to start all of the team’s matches so far this season. Van Gaal started yet another different backline, this time opting for Phil Jones, Michael Carrick, and Jonny Evans. In the midfield, he started Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia at left and right wingback, respectively, as well as Juan Mata, Marouane Fellaini, and Wayne Rooney in central midfield. Robin Van Persie and James Wilson earned starting appearances in the two striking positions, still proving that Radamel Falcao is not yet at full match fitness.
Early in the match, possession was shared equally between the two teams. An early scoring chance appeared spontaneously for Liverpool as Adam Lallana carved the United backline with a brilliant through ball into the unchallenged run of Raheem Sterling. Sterling’s shot was well stopped by a perfectly positioned David De Gea. The first of several saves requiring the goalkeeper’s positioning and reflexes to be sharp. On Manchester’s possession following the save, a chance arose for Wayne Rooney to prove his finishing clinical. Antonio Valencia, whose performance during the match was commendable, beat Liverpool midfielders Joe Allen by dribbling the ball through his legs and past him. He then measured a layoff pass perfectly into the stride of Wayne Rooney, whose strike found the side opposite of goalkeeper Brad Jones’ dive. United 1, Liverpool 0.
Despite conceding a goal, Liverpool kept the pressure up, earning more scoring chances for Raheem Sterling. David De Gea proved more than up to the task, keeping Liverpool scoreless throughout the first half. United, however, were presented another chance when Ashley Young crossed a ball into the Liverpool box, which was headed in by Juan Mata. The play should have been whistled offside, but the linesman failed to notice that the ball glanced of Robin Van Persie’s head, placing Mata in an offside position. At the end of the first half, United lead 2-0.
In the second half, Liverpool took charge of the game, pressing a sustained attack on the United goal. A golden chance appeared again for Sterling, when a Jonny Evans errant back pass swerved perfectly into Sterling’s gait on a one-on-one breakaway against De Gea. The Spaniard goalkeeper would prove up to the task yet again, as Sterling’s first touch took him into an undesired angle away from net allowing De Gea to sprawl to save the Englishman’s attempt on net. The goalless break visibly frustrated substitute Mario Balotelli, who did no better to beat the goalkeeper on his attempt not too long after. Balotelli’s shot, following a neat layoff by Sterling, was parried by De Gea into the crossbar then away from goal. On a breakaway soon after, United capitalized on another Liverpool defensive mistake. Dejan Lovren’s attempted clearance fell short right onto the boots of Juan Mata, who found Robin Van Persie with a spectacular no-look pass that resembled a shot attempt. Van Persie found the net wide open, as the Liverpool keeper fully committed himself to the Juan Mata shot fake. United 3, Liverpool 0. De Gea closed the game out with two more influential saves on Mario Balotelli to see the game out and confirm his clean sheet.
United are brimming with confidence after their sixth win in a row and third clean sheet in that stretch. Although, they are winning games, earning the all-important three points each week, they are team challenging a title run with the most room for improvement. Defensively, they still need to develop a system, select a set of reliable players, and maintain physical health. Offensively, they could be more creative, developing more chances, although the past weeks they have capitalized on the few chances they have created. Key performances from David De Gea, Wayne Rooney, Robin Van Persie, and Michael Carrick have defined this winning streak. Carrick and De Gea have provided a sense of calm at the back and Rooney and Van Persie have recently come into good form in front of net. It is no coincidence that the six games Michael Carrick started United have won. Next week, United hope to continue this stretch on the road against Aston Villa. The match will be aired on NBC Sports Network, Saturday December 20th at 10:00 AM ET.