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Manchester United pounce to pile on Liverpool’s winter woes

Manchester United recovered from early pressure to boost their top four hopes with a 3-0 victory over Champions League spot competitors, and bitter rivals, Liverpool.

This most tempestuous of northwest derbies began in a predictably scrappy manner and was awash with yellow cards.

Brendan Rodgers, having already left under-fire custodian Simon Mignolet on the sidelines, surprised again by matching Louis van Gaal’s tactic of three at the back, with the visitors initially having the best of the battle.

Deserved Man of the Match David de Gea came to the Red Devils’ rescue once again in those sticky moments, though, with a masterclass of saves.

Arguably United’s most important player, it was the Spain stopper’s thwarting of enthralling Raheem Sterling, toiling up top alone, that led to the host’s first goal.

Industrious Antonio Valencia gave Alberto Moreno a torrid time, but it was Adam Lallana and Joe Allen that the Equador attacker skipped past as Liverpool’s left back trailed in his wake.

Skipper Wayne Rooney gave Coutinho the slip to meet Valencia’s low cross with a Frank Lampard-esque run from midfield, where he impressed with his tenacity and range of passing, to slot home his sixth of the season.

Sterling’s pace and movement continually threatened to craft an equaliser, but it wasn’t to be the England international’s day, as De Gea carried on halting the fantastically tricky 20-year-old.

The youngster was unable to find a way past determined De Gea even when put through clean on goal, with the super stopper recovering from a stumble and sloppy back pass to deny with his feet.

Real Madrid’s supposed interest in opposition protagonists De Gea and Sterling should be a worry for both sides, and today’s performances only compounded the need to secure their star assets.

With his striker-less team struggling, Rodgers’ decision to bring on Mario Balotelli after the break certainly saw Liverpool have more attempts on target, but De Gea gave another display of top draw saves.

Majestic Michael Carrick’s importance could not be understated either, with the composed conductor, deployed as a centre back sweeper, also crucial in United keeping a clean sheet.

For all their possession and sight of goal, it was the Merseyide men’s defence that once again let them, and stand-in keeper Brad Jones, down.

Ashley Young’s curling cross somehow found Juan Mata unchallenged at the far post, with the Spaniard free to head home. A touch off Robin van Persie may have meant it should have been ruled offside, but Liverpool’s recriminations should be focused on their lack of awareness instead.

The visitors continued to press, but paid the price for their exuberance, as United picked them off on the break once again.

Smart work from Mata found Rooney, who misplaced his pass, but the midfield maestro mopped up and slid an unselfish ball through to a hard-working Robin van Persie, whose finish was simple.

Van Gaal will be satisfied with the Red Devils’ ruthlessness, but there is still room for improvement, with panic when in possession a concern.

Rodgers, meanwhile, will have to go back to the drawing board yet again. Liverpool can be boosted by their adventure in attack, but need to find composure and authority both up front and in defence.