Belfast Telegraph

Manchester United deepen Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers' misery

Heat cranks up on Ulsterman as unbeatable De Gea ensures Van Gaal's revolution rolls on

By Sam Wallace

For Brendan Rodgers, it was a truly Moyesian afternoon of mishap piled on humiliation with an offside goal added to the equation just to heighten the sense of doom that this is a season going nowhere and a club in free fall.

Last season, Rodgers came here and won by the same scoreline, one of those breezy, attacking performances from Liverpool that were commonplace after the turn of the year and which sent David Moyes deeper into despair.

Now, it is Liverpool for whom the pain seems endless, even on days like these when they created chances and yet opportunity eluded them at every turn.

This was not a vintage Manchester United performance by any measure, but the Louis van Gaal revolution rolls on with a sixth straight victory and a dogged pursuit of Chelsea and Manchester City. If the quality was at times low, like the proverbial Sunday league pub team game predicted by Gary Neville, it was United who remembered at the crucial moments who they were and the standards required.

In their times of difficulty they had the peerless David de Gea to rescue them. Liverpool had a defence that might just have been introduced to one another on the bus to the game: incoherent, disorganised and forced into another unfamiliar formation.

Rodgers' defenders might have been absolved of their errors were it not for the fact that their attack foundered every time at the hands of De Gea, the game's outstanding player. He made three crucial saves from Raheem Sterling within the first hour and then three more from the substitute Mario Balotelli in the second half.

In attack, United took the chances presented to them and rode their luck at times: Juan Mata's goal, the second of the three, was clearly offside.

Afterwards, Rodgers claimed that his team had created more chances than they had when they won the corresponding fixture last season and this time had come up against a goalkeeper at the top of his game. But there is more to Liverpool's demise than pure misfortune.

Van Gaal said that it had been his team's preparation for the specific challenges of playing Liverpool that had got them through. "It is not for nothing as we have scored the way we did," he said. "You need luck but you can force the luck. We are forcing the luck now. That was not always the case."

There were goals from Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie too, and an accomplished performance at centre-back from Michael Carrick - and in the end it was enough.

United's failing last season under Moyes was that mediocre performances produced nothing but disastrous results. For Rodgers, now the problem is the same.

After 16 games last season in the league, Moyes' United had 25 points. Liverpool currently have 21 at the same stage this season and while there were small signs of progress, the bigger picture for Rodgers is grim.

He dropped his struggling goalkeeper Simon Mignolet and selected Brad Jones, who will continue in goal for the foreseeable future - including the Capital One Cup tie away at Bournemouth on Wednesday - according to Rodgers.

He picked a three-man defence but it was no better in that configuration and, to make matters worse, he lost Glen Johnson to a first-half injury.

The first half had been chaos at times, a match that looked like a compilation of out-takes between two teams trying to stage a serious football match.

The ball was passed aimlessly, or into touch, or to an opponent more times than seemed feasible. There were offenders on either side but Marouane Fellaini stood out for the home team. Liverpool looked the more assured if anything.

Liverpool's first good chance fell to Sterling, played in behind Phil Jones by Adam Lallana, and his shot was saved by De Gea. Within 25 seconds, Liverpool were a goal behind, Antonio Valencia getting away down the right into space, slipping the ball through the legs of Joe Allen and breaking to the touchline. His cut-back to Rooney was dispatched perfectly.

Van Gaal had selected teenager James Wilson in attack and in defence, an injury to Marcos Rojo in training meant that Jones was rushed back into the team. On 23 minutes, Sterling left Jones looking like a man who had forgotten where he had parked his car, turning sharply towards goal and shooting at De Gea's near post. Again the goalkeeper saved.

Mata scurried around trying to get into the game to no avail until, six minutes before half-time, he gambled on a late run to the back post and was rewarded with a cross from Ashley Young that skimmed Van Persie's head. Mata, unmarked and well offside, stooped down to head the ball in.

It had been a half in which none of the big moments had fallen for Rodgers in spite of a performance that had deserved better. He brought on Balotelli for Lallana and his team created chances, but found De Gea in superb form.

The United goalkeeper saved from Sterling for the third time on 51 minutes, after a mistake by Jonny Evans had allowed the Englishman a run on goal. The goalkeeper's best moment was still yet to come.

That was a save from a shot from Balotelli from seven yards that somehow De Gea pushed onto the bar. Earlier, Philippe Coutinho, Liverpool's best player, had skipped past Rooney, unwilling to risk a second booking, and slid the ball through to Sterling who was well-tackled by Jones.

Sterling had jumped back up to his feet and found Balotelli. De Gea's save felt like a turning point, and so it turned out.

Four minutes later, Liverpool were undone on the counter-attack by United, who were aided by the calamitous defending of Dejan Lovren.

Breaking out from defence, Mata slipped the ball to Rooney whose cross was feebly cleared by the Liverpool defender. Given a second chance, Mata picked out Van Persie to his right and the third goal was dispatched.

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