Liverpool vs Manchester United match report: Wayne Rooney's moment of class fails to hide his team's folly

Liverpool 0 Manchester United 1

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The Independent Football

A Dog & Duck v Red Lion occasion, if ever there was one. It’s a year or so since Gary Neville told us that is what the fixture which once fired the soul had been reduced to, but here was the evidence in plain view.

It was a school field kind of spectacle at times – scruffy, naive, mindless; two groups of players conceding possession time and time over and one of them scrambling home with the afternoon’s singular moment of class. Manchester United knew this.

There was none of the characteristic joy in Sir Alex Ferguson’s face as left the directors’ box after a last 10 minutes which had seemed, from the gestures accompanying his animated conversation with club executive Ed Woodward in the next seat, to be consumed with the team’s failure to play with common sense, once their goal had come. Wayne Rooney was not punching the bitterly cold afternoon air when the whistle sounded.

The agony for Liverpool is rendered all the greater by both the ease and predictability of Rooney’s winner, from another of the corners to which they are now so painfully susceptible. The four defenders clustering around Marouane Fellaini in that moment were mesmerised; oblivious to the goalscorer who lurked behind them in wait. But the sense of an opportunity spurned compounds the grief which was tangible when the Liverpool manager, Jürgen Klopp, arrived, shell-shocked, to discuss it all.

Rooney’s goal, dispatched imperiously into the roof of the net, was the first United strike on target in a game which seemed to be there for the taking. Even his manager, Louis van Gaal, confessed at the end of it all that “I have to admit we survived the first half” and there were a few moments in that period when the most elementary plan looked enough to unpick a defence in which he actually claims some pride.

A lollipop lob over the top from Lucas Leiva, beyond the wit of United’s centre-halves, required a sharp David De Gea reaction stop to repel the ball the chasing Adam Lallana tried to lift past him. Another lofted pass, left flank to right side of the area, sent United’s defence chasing behind them again, nowhere remotely near James Milner, who took on Roberto Firmino’s pass. It was a hardly a lock-picking exercise, though Milner’s free strike on goal did not remotely threaten the target.

It was not the last time that De Gea – Van Gaal’s man of the match once again, in this season of rearguard actions – would be called upon. A strong right hand was required to repel Emre Can’s shot after he had burst through the area after the break, with more instinctive goalkeeping when Firmino followed up.

The unfathomable aspect of Van Gaal’s post-match assessment was his reticence, bordering on rudeness, to praise the Spaniard: “I cannot say that today he has done a lot. He has stopped the balls that he had to stop. Maybe the one with one hand? Maybe. But I think he has to save it.”

The manager would have been wise to focus on those, like De Gea, who had delivered for him in this match because they were few and far between. The central midfield was loose and untidy, with little to choose between Ander Herrera and Morgan Schneiderlin.

Fellaini was marginally the more significant by virtue of his physical presence and a temperament to resist what appeared to be Leiva’s attempts to provoke a red card reaction from him. The Brazilian thumped into the Belgian’s head with his shoulder a few minutes in and promptly laid hands on him – twice. It was the kind of strategy which can yield results where Fellaini is concerned. Lucas was lucky not to be booked.

With Liverpool’s defence anchored by Kolo Touré – whom Klopp does not pretend is anything other than in the twilight of his career – and more prone to conceding corners than any other Premier League team, finding the way to score did not seem like a feat of science. Yet it was not until the game’s 78th minute that Fellaini threatened from the significant set piece. Rarely could Anthony Martial be set free to test the full-backs Nathaniel Clyne, for whom this was a professional appointment best forgotten, or Alberto Moreno.

The game intelligence of United’s first half was encapsulated by the piece of decision-making seconds after Ashley Young had been struck down with the muscular injury which Van Gaal admitted had meant he ought to have missed this match. He received treatment, dragged himself to his feet – and was promptly treated to a hospital pass by Chris Smalling, the rigours of which he did not recover from.

Fortunately for United, Liverpool’s own intelligence was barely any better. Firmino screamed at Simon Mignolet not to clear the ball to him in the second-half wind, but he did so anyway, setting off the train of events by which possession was turned over and a corner won which – taken short to substitute Juan Mata – delivered the accurate, match-winning cross.

United made the opportunity pay because they possessed Rooney, the game changer. Since he was dropped to make way for Herrera at Stoke at Boxing Day, it has been hard to find fault with him. “A striker who scores is always very important and now he is scoring in a row and we are winning in a row,” Van Gaal said last night.

This was precisely what Klopp lacked. There was more than one occasion when Jordan Henderson, driving forward, had no man in red in front of him. The captain’s own finishing – firing wide after Lucas had sent him through, then blasting over with Firmino lying in wait to receive – was desperate. Klopp was being generous when he said that Firmino fitted the bill and no new centre-forward was required.

“This game will give a big boost to the the environment of Manchester United,” reflected Van Gaal, who has beaten Liverpool four times consecutively and has firmly reinforced his job security. But no one is fooled. There is a long road ahead for both sides.