The foolish mistake by a pumped up Gerrard left Liverpool with a mountain to climb as they were already one-goal behind by that point and, although Brendan Rodgers’ side performed valiantly, a terrific second goal from Juan Mata meant the match was United’s to lose.
Sturridge responded by scoring with the hosts’ first- and only- shot on target with just over 20 minutes remaining, but ultimately the Merseysiders got what they deserved from a typically fractious and ill-tempered contest; nothing.
Brendan Rodgers stuck with the same team that beat Swansea 1-0 on Monday night for a massive six-pointer that was perhaps wrongly billed ‘winner takes all’ in the fight for fourth. Returning injury casualties Gerrard and Lucas began on the bench alongside Mario Balotelli, who was also another firework thrown into an already explosive encounter when he was introduced in the second half.
On the back of their best performance of the season so far in their 3-0 win over Spurs last Sunday, United started the better, beating Liverpool at their own game. Pressing high up the pitch, Van Gaal’s men kept the ball superbly, leaving the Reds, who only managed just over 30% of possession for most of the first half, immensely frustrated.
One particularly important battle that the visitors won took place between Alberto Moreno and Juan Mata down Liverpool’s left wing. Defensively vulnerable, the latter was tormented by the former, who was in top form and indisputably the man of the match. For both of Mata’s goals, Moreno was culpable. It came as no surprise when he was replaced by Mario Balotelli midway through the second half.
The opener arrived on 14 minutes and started with Ander Herrera slicing Liverpool’s defence to shreds with a pass that exposed the out of position Moreno. Mata took full advantage, latching on to the ball and firing coolly across goal and into the net in front of the Kop.
|Match winner Mata celebrates scoring the opener|
Liverpool, however, hardly earned any good fortune. They were poor throughout the first half and only managed to carve open one decent goalscoring opportunity when Henderson and Sturridge combined to set up Lallana, who drilled agonisingly inches wide from 12 yards.
For United, Carrick was the linchpin in the holding midfield position, and the Englishman also posed a threat going forward, heading a corner over the top and then warming Mignolet’s hands with a cracking effort from 30 yards out in first half injury time.
Introducing Steven Gerrard for the injured Lallana at the break was widely held to be a wise move by Brendan Rodgers. The Reds needed his stabilising presence, which swung the game in their favour against Swansea, as well as his ability to bring the likes of Coutinho, Sterling and Sturridge, who had been starved of service during the first 45 minutes, into the game. Gerrard also had the ability to stir up some passion from his teammates, who arguably had insufficient fire in their bellies.
Unfortunately, Stevie had an excess of fire in his belly, and it spilled over into senseless stupidity. Only moments after spreading a lovely cross-field pass out to the right and then producing a blood-and-thunder, tough but fair tackle on Juan Mata, the number eight ridiculously lashed out after being tackled by Herrera, inexplicably and inexcusably stamping on the Spaniard.
|Atkinson had no choice but to dismiss Gerrard|
Number one, Liverpool still have a chance of achieving Champions League qualification. Number two, the Reds’ terrible form from August to December will be much more to blame than Gerrard’s red card against United if they do miss out on elite level European football next season.
Coutinho curled one of his classic efforts on goal just over the bar in response, while Phil Jones was also lucky to stay on the pitch after a poor, late and high tackle on Henderson, but a booking was probably just about right. Just before the hour mark, though, Mata made Liverpool’s task seemingly impossible with a superb second strike.
|This was just a great strike|
The arrival of Mario Balotelli on 64 minutes made things even more interesting and explosive. The Italian almost immediately got booked for a brainless foul on Jones in the corner and also had to be restrained by fans on the front row after appearing ready to snap following a foul by Smalling that left the number 45 in a heap against the hoardings.
|Those front row fans did more to help Liverpool win than Alberto Moreno!|
Hopes of a miraculous comeback were raised on 69 minutes when Sturridge pulled one back, firing first time past De Gea, who should have done better, after being slipped in by Coutinho.
|Sturridge halved the deficit|
That proved evident in injury time, when Can bundled into and brought down the breaking Blind in the box to concede a penalty. Thankfully, Mignolet produced a great save to deny Rooney only his second goal at Anfield.
|"Why did I put Fraser Forster in my fantasy football team instead of Mignolet?"|
|Some late stupidity from Skrtel could prove costly|