This Sunday’s clash between Liverpool and Manchester United at Anfield was in many ways the most important game of the season for both teams. With both teams seemingly out of the title race, the stakes were still high at Anfield with the much important 4th place, which guarantees Champions League football, in sight. In the end it was Manchester United who got the better of their Liverpool rivals in what was their best performance all season, but things were made easier for them when Steven Gerrard lasted on the pitch just for 48 seconds before being shamefully sent off for a stamp on Ander Herrera.
Despite it being a crucial encounter, it was far from the decisive one and every game from now on will be important as the race for the Top 4 and the relegation battle heats up. Manchester United have effectively finished Liverpool’s streak of 13 unbeaten games in the league, with Liverpool’s last defeat in a league game being at Old Trafford, and fended off perhaps their greatest rival for Top 4. The Red Devils have put themselves in pole position after finally finding some momentum in their last two games ahead of the international break. It has not been a smooth ride for Louis Van Gaal’s team, but they managed to scrape off victories against the likes of Newcastle, Sunderland, Burnley, Leicester and QPR, but at this stage of the season, it is the points that matter more than the performance.
However despite collecting points, a couple of weeks ago Manchester United still faced a tough task as their biggest test was yet to come with clashes against Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal all in the horizon. Based on the team performances, United had every right to be worried about the upcoming fixture list, however now, a couple of weeks later, their chances look a lot higher with victories in both crucial games, victories that were underlined by an impressive, encouraging display.
With a two week international break, both Brendan Rodgers and Louis Van Gaal will be hoping their players return fully fit and in form, ready for the climax of the season. Next weekend, Liverpool will be hoping to bounce back from their defeat in a mouthwatering fixture against Arsenal at the Emirates, a game that will be an absolute must-win for the Reds, if they are to maintain the pressure on Manchester United. They will most likely be without the important Martin Skrtel, who is currently under investigation by the FA for a stamp on David De Gea in the final moments of Sunday’s game. Skrtel has been a rock at the heart of Liverpool’s back three and his ban will be a big blow to Rodgers, should the FA retrospectively punish the Slovakian defender. They will certainly be without their captain Steven Gerrard, who has been rightfully shown a red card for a nasty stamp on Ander Herrera just 48 seconds into the second half, after he was substituted on for Adam Lallana. From that moment it was almost an impossible task for Liverpool, who conceded a second goal but managed to pull one back through Daniel Sturridge and keep United on their toes for the rest of the game.
Gerrard’s sending off could be a crucial moment come the end of the season. There is no use in thinking what could have been now, but Liverpool are certainly in a more difficult position now than they were one week ago. Instead, let’s focus on what has actually happened on Sunday. After the game, the Liverpool skipper, to his credit, accepted his blame and apologised to just about anyone, including his teammates and fans, but funnily enough didn’t apologise to one person, the man he stamped on – Ander Herrera. What left me slightly puzzled, was the reaction to Gerrard’s (and Skrtel’s) “moment of madness”. The reaction I remember from the last time a player stamped on his opponent, Diego Costa was labelled a monster and grilled in the media for the next few days, making the headlines of pretty much every newspaper in the country. When he planted his studs on Emre Can at Stamford Bridge in January, the reaction was universal outrage and a retrospective ban. The ban was more than fair, given that no one wants to see such actions on a football pitch, but the general reaction was notably different, exaggerated when compared to the one following Sunday.
The Liverpool skipper was apparently “frustrated” and is an “emotional player” who “plays with his heart to won” – as if that made it acceptable to step on other players. Those words were said by his friend and former team-mate Jamie Carragher on Sky Sports, the same man who labelled Costa a “disgraceful player” back in January. While it is surely difficult to criticise a friend on live tv, it is a risk Carragher took when he started his career as a pundit. The sympathetic lines for both Gerrard and Skrtel were certainly not there for Costa who instead of being excused as a passionate player was “dirty, nasty, reckless and dangerous” and perhaps foreign too…
Manchester United on the other hand will be much more confident when Aston Villa will come to Old Trafford, however Tim Sherwood’s team can be very unpredictable. All the better for the Red Devils then that they have finally found a working midfield cocktail for themselves. All season, Louis Van Gaal has been (forced into) experimenting with his squad and formation when the solutions were very much under his nose all season. Ander Herrera and Juan Mata have both fallen out of favour under Van Gaal but in the last two games have shown great understanding and link-up play with Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini, another out of favour player. Meanwhile Wayne Rooney has been finally moved from midfield to his more natural position with Radamel Falcao only on the bench. Now that we have seen United at their finest with good possession, movement and much more urgency in their passing, it makes us wonder what took Van Gaal so long to figure out his Spanish solution to the problem. The Mata-Herrera duo were flying on Sunday and can carry United to Champions League football next season, not with scraping through games, but through the fluent attacking football Manchester United fans have been used to in recent years.
As for Liverpool, all is not lost but the Reds cannot afford to slip up anymore. Their next game will be a test of character and will show us how far a step this Liverpool team has made since November 2014. With their remaining games against Arsenal (A), Newcastle (H), Hull (A), WBA (A), QPR (H), Chelsea (A), Crystal Palace (H) and Stoke (A), they can still give Manchester United a big battle, but perhaps the toughest part of their mission comes next weekend, when they must keep the pressure on the Red Devils. The Manchester team meanwhile still faces a slightly more difficult run of fixtures: Aston Villa (H), Manchester City (H), Chelsea (A), Everton (A), West Brom (H), Crystal Palace (A), Arsenal (H), Hull (A).
While the fixture list is slightly in favour of Liverpool, it is Manchester who has the five point lead. The Red Devils have not been known for giving the most glamorous performances over the season, receiving criticism from about everywhere, but they have performed when it mattered the most. However words of warning for the Manchester club, Liverpool still remain the best team in the Premier League since last November with 33 points out of 42 available and have impressed in 2015. Southampton and Tottenham are the other teams in pursuit of that 4th place, sitting just 1 point behind Liverpool. Whereas in the end it can go down to as little as goal difference, one thing is for certain, the battle for the 4th spot will be an intriguing one.