Originally published on Premier Punditry.
After a week spent watching film of the great triumphs of the past in this fixture, in preparation for what felt like the most important match of the season, so came the inevitable gut punch. I should have known better: it’s stupid to tempt fate, especially when these two giants of the game are involved and things rarely, if ever, go according to plan.
Liverpool were supposed to handily beat Manchester United on Sunday. They were the team that hadn’t lost since December, the side that stood brazenly atop the Premier League form table, and the ones who have turned their season around on the strength of a bold new formation and a rediscovery of the attacking identity that almost took them to the summit last season.
United, until last week, had drifted through the campaign thus far as more a collection of individuals than a coherent team with any semblance of an identity — one that appeared to be riding talent alone to its top four status at the time of kickoff.
And yet, they came to Anfield, and they deployed a well-tailored game plan that they perfectly executed, and they went home with all three points. And, in all likelihood and at Liverpool’s expense, a Champions League place.
United showed no fear and no uncertainty right from the off, attacking the game with an aggression simply unmatched by their opponents. The gave Liverpool’s buildup no time on the ball; Joe Allen couldn’t get a clean pass off all game, while Emre Can and Mamadou Sakho saw every outball to Raheem Sterling and Alberto Moreno, on the wings, stepped on by a diligent but restrained United press.
Liverpool could find no space and had no answers. What’s more, in terms of mentality, the sheer occasion — England’s Greatest Rivalry, the Champions League place on the line, even Pele’s presence in the stands, for fuck’s sake — seemed beyond them. It reminded me of the Chelsea game at Anfield last April; for me, at least, it’s almost as devastating.
The captain lost it. There’s no excuse, and he’s apologized for it. That still doesn’t make it any less bewildering to have witnessed. He cost Liverpool a football match they could have easily gotten something out of, and maybe even won. They had survived a dreadful opening 20 minutes, and went in at halftime down a solitary goal; Adam Lallana could have very well leveled things with a clear goal-scoring opportunity that went off target. But Liverpool had been second best after the first 45, and then the captain got himself sent off and United weren’t going to lose a one-goal lead against 10 men.
It is fortunate, I think, that Louis van Gaal has stumbled into finally playing Juan Mata in the last couple weeks. Good for him — Juan Mata is a United player after all, and United are the type of club that can afford to throw a player of Juan Mata’s caliber out there at Anfield when the season is on the line. He scored two great goals and won United the game.
For Liverpool, it’s two long weeks until another massive, season-defining game at Arsenal. Two weeks to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to be the best team on the day, every day. Because, to the great frustration of anyone who’s invested themselves in this football team this year, they simply weren’t against United.