Juan Mata double magnificent for Man Utd in Anfield thriller
Juan Mata made every minute count against Liverpool, as Manchester United triumphed 2-1 in an eventful and incident-packed northwest derby at Anfield, to go five points clear of their bitter rivals in the top four race.
As Michael Carrick stated after the game, “little magician” Mata was creator-in-chief, but also stole the show with a brilliant brace.
Louis van Gaal’s well-tuned Red Devils dominated the majority of the first half, showing the same spirit and organisation that saw them sink Spurs. Stifled Liverpool, meanwhile, scrambled, chasing shadows at every turn.
An impressive spell of possession was well rewarded as Ander Herrera, tenacious and instrumental yet again, opened up Brendan Rodgers’ backline with ease to find onrushing Mata.
The silky Spaniard justified his spot in the starting XI ahead of Angel Di Maria in that moment, coolly slotting the ball over Simon Mignolet, who again looked nervy throughout.
It was, however, the intelligent playmaker’s second strike that caught the eye and imagination, as Mata displayed top class technique to volley home substitute Di Maria’s inch perfect dink over the Liverpool defence.
Influential both with and without the ball, this was surely a defining moment in Mata’s Man Utd career, and his best performance for the Red Devils by far.
The majority of headlines will still likely go to Steven Gerrard, appearing in possibly his last northwest derby, despite the skipper being on the pitch for less than a minute. Hosts Liverpool ended the first half just 1-0 down, with Gerrard brought off the bench to fire up home fans and replace Adam Lallana, who had wasted the home team’s best chance.
Rodgers’ decision backfired spectacularly, though, as the Anfield hero rushed into a full-blooded challenge on Mata, followed by a misjudged stamp on Herrera, who saw yellow himself for the tussle. It was a disappointing way for the former England captain to sign out of this fixture.
Being reduced to 10 men certainly changed the game for the Merseyside men, but it was the visitors who suffered and looked shakiest. To their credit, Liverpool battled back spectacularly to have the best of the second half, with inspirational Jordan Henderson once again urging his troops on.
Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge showed glimpses, but struggled against the physicality of Chris Smalling, who was commanding and strong at centre back.
Following Di Maria’s introduction, United found their flow again, and Liverpool appeared to have no way back after Mata’s stunner.
As the Red Devils took their foot off the pedal, though, the hosts showed an impressive attitude and began to turn the tide once more.
It was game-changer Philippe Coutinho, playing in front of legendary compatriot Pele, who found the space to slide a pass through to Sturridge, whose strike took a slight deflection off Phil Jones to deceive David de Gea.
Still, United managed to see out a scrappy and edgy final 20 minutes, despite an off-colour Wayne Rooney fluffing his spot-kick.
Emre Can barreled over Daley Blind in the box after Di Maria’s sneaky ball caught the centre back out, but Rooney’s predictable penalty, which denied Mata the chance of a hat-trick, was easily foiled by Mignolet.
So, the Red Devils reaped the rewards of their early adventure and received a crucial top four boost, but the visitors should also feel lucky to have taken all three points after Liverpool’s ferocious fightback.
Rodgers’ men, meanwhile, will need to regroup quickly ahead of a tough trip to Arsenal, with the Emirates encounter now taking on much more significance.