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Juan Mata Leads Manchester United Past Liverpool at Anfield

I’m already well on the record saying that the Anfield match is my least favorite fixture of Manchester United’s season. Even during good seasons everything just seems to go wrong for United there.

The match is always the lunchtime Sunday kickoff (8:30 AM in the US), which is done to prevent people from drinking beforehand and in hopes that everyone is still hungover from the night before. Even then, you can always feel the atmosphere and tension through your TV and it always feel like Liverpool are on a different level in this match.

Well someone forgot to tell that to Juan Mata. Having been restored to the team last week against Spurs, Mata kept his place this week and bagged a fantastic brace, which included this second half goal of the season contender,

Juan_Mata_Bicycle_Kick_Goal_vs_Liverpool

to lead Manchester United past Liverpool Sunday. The win moves United five points clear of Liverpool for fourth place as United complete the double over Liverpool for the season.

As I said, in recent years United have struggled at Anfield, but this one was different. Right from the get-go United were attacking and looking like the better side. Right off the opening kickoff Manchester United were the team in control, playing composed on the ball, and making passes that we seldom have seen this year. They looked just like they did last week against Spurs, which is actually kind of shocking.

Should it be shocking? They started the exact same XI as last week against Spurs, so on one hand it shouldn’t be. On the other hand, this team has been anything but consistent this year and several times have followed up great performances with duds.

Manchester United celebrates and moves up.

Manchester celebrates and moves up.

United now move five points clear of Liverpool for fourth place, and sit just two points behind Manchester City for second place. Suddenly Michael Carrick saying United can overtake City and finish the season as runners-up doesn’t seem so crazy. It really looks as if United have turned a corner and are finally playing great football as they head into the March international break¬†just in time to kill all their momentum.

On the Liverpool side of the things the story is obviously club captain Steven Gerrard coming onto the field as a halftime substitute and playing exactly 32 seconds before getting a red card. While ordinarily I’d love to take this opportunity to pile on Gerrard as the ‘great leader’ Liverpool fans think he is, I won’t. In a very classy move (something I don’t say about Gerrard too often) he came out and met the media after the match, taking responsibility for the red card, letting his teammates down, and ultimately losing the match.

Rodgers did not make the right call.

Rodgers did not make the right call.

While stamping on Ander Herrera to earn the red card is pretty inexplicable, it’s not nearly as inexplicable as Brendan Rodgers leaving Gerrard out of the starting XI for his final home match against United. Even if Gerrard’s form has taken a dip recently, there’s no doubt he would have raised his game against United like he always has in the past.

It’s not all bad for Liverpool though, while they may now be five points behind United for top four, they still haven’t lost a match to a team not named Manchester United since November. It’s not inconceivable that Liverpool simply continue that form and go right back to beating everything in their path. However, it’s also not ridiculous to suggest that this could be the start of a late season dip in form, similar to the one they had last year, especially with their next match coming against an in-form Arsenal at the Emirates.

Juan Mata gave United breathing room this week, but it’s far more important that United keep up their good play as we’re about to have a thrilling final two months of the season.

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