Wednesday 20 November 2019

Gerrard's costly stamp of disapproval

Liverpool 1 Manchester United 2

Juan Mata volleys home Manchester United's second goal
Juan Mata volleys home Manchester United's second goal
Juan Mata scores Manchester United's opening goal past Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal celebrates with Marouane Fellaini after their victory over Liverpool at Anfield

Chris Bascombe

The great Pele had not returned to his seat in the directors' box and the digital clock by the corner of the Kop had not been restarted for the second half, so, in some ways, you could say that time really did stand still for Steven Gerrard's moment of madness.

Gerrard was determined to leave a final mark on English football prior to his summer farewell, but the bruise on Ander Herrera's ankle was not what he envisaged.

If the enduring image of last season was the Liverpool captain's slip against Chelsea, a salvage act is required to ensure his stamp on the Manchester United midfielder does not prove equally significant in the pursuit of Champions League places.

The swiftness of his apology underlined his fear Manchester United may not be caught after what looks like a defining Anfield win.

Here was the manifestation of Gerrard's complex relationship with the most meaningful fixtures.

His career is littered with glory and calamity on the biggest occasions; stunning winners and own goals; inspirational comebacks and ruinous backpasses; 30-yard equalisers in the last minute and perplexing dismissals in his first minute; every trophy won except the one he craves most.

No Liverpool player has shaken the hand of triumph and felt the kick of catastrophe in such equal measure.

Of Gerrard's seven red cards for Liverpool, four have come against United or Everton. It is no coincidence. These fixtures can stir the blood but equally purée the brain, and Gerrard is not used to being unleashed at the halfway point of a gladiatorial battle.

In the efforts to rationalise the 38 seconds between his half-time introduction and red card, you could imagine Gerrard stewing on the bench, simmering as the away fans worked through their repertoire about lost titles, boiling point reached as he saw every 50-50 challenge go United's way. He introduced himself with a ferocious tackle on Juan Mata and, as The Kop rose to applaud the aggression, he followed up with what replays and the subsequent apology confirmed was a stamp on Herrera.

It was not the only ugly scene, the video assessors no doubt pencilling in several hours for reviewing duty this morning.

The glee of United's fans was all too apparent. They already have an extensive discography of tunes dedicated to Liverpool and their captain, and swiftly penned another to add to the playlist.

There were a couple of occasions they lauded the excellence of their own team, too.

For all the inevitable focus on Gerrard's self-destruction, United were already in control and their most accomplished performance to date under Louis Van Gaal was a contributory factor in the home indiscipline.

This was the United we have not seen since Alex Ferguson's retirement - fluent in possession, overpowering in midfield and menacing in attack.

Liverpool could barely get hold of their ball in the first half, the 3-4-3 that has caused such a transformation since their last Premier League defeat suddenly looking flawed.

Liverpool have spent the last three months trying to repair the damage of their previous setback against United, taking the plaudits for their style and tactical nous while Van Gaal was said to be stumbling to victories.

The contrast between a side in control of their emotions and another playing in a state of frenzy was apparent before Gerrard's ugly cameo. It was the team in red that was bereft of composure.

"We played them off the pitch in the first half," said Van Gaal. "We beat them with their own weapons - pressing."

Van Gaal's assessment was fair. United looked stronger, quicker and hungrier as they grasped their half-time lead, prompting Rodgers' swift substitution.

Marouane Fellaini was possessed in the kind of role David Moyes saw the best of him in at Everton but, mystifyingly, never used him at United - an advanced midfield bully bruising the air, the turf and anyone within distance.

United's first diagonal ball to the Belgian was within 10 seconds, Fellaini shrugging off Emre Can - the plan to play on the edge of Liverpool's penalty area all too apparent.

This was no mere direct action, however. Herrera and Michael Carrick offered the midfield elegance, and Liverpool's creative energy was subdued to the point of anonymity.

At times Carrick looked like an alien presence, a picture of serenity in the midst of havoc. His tranquillity was even more significant as the other United players' form deteriorated in the latter stages.

High-tempo

The visitors' opening goal, courtesy of Mata on 14 minutes, was fully deserved, pieced together with the kind of high tempo move Van Gaal and United's followers have been yearning for.

Alberto Moreno lost possession and the ball went forward until Fellaini found Herrera, who played his pass into the right channel. Coming in from the right, Mata sprang the offside trap and beat Simon Mignolet brilliantly with a shot inside the goalkeeper's right post. Despite the best efforts of Coutinho to get his team moving on the counter-attack, there was nothing about Liverpool as sharp as United's move for the goal.

Phil Jones' heavy collision with Lallana was classic Jones, the driverless train ploughing onwards. He was booked later in the second half for a tackle on Jordan Henderson, so late it was better suited to the 4pm kick-off.

On came Gerrard at the start of the second half, his introduction lifting the stadium. His tackle on Herrera was hard but admissible and then came the boot plunged down on the leg of the United player.

He went off amid anger in the stands and then, as realisation spread that it was the right decision, disbelief.

All of the first half, the Liverpool captain had had to listen to the away fans sing that "Gerrard f***s it up". And now he really had.

Before the hour, United had their second, a superb volley from Mata from a cross by substitute Angel Di Maria. It looked like a case of damage limitation for the hosts, but Sturridge reduced the deficit on 70 minutes and a missed penalty from Wayne Rooney in injury time made United sweat until the end.

They left Merseyside with a five-point lead, Liverpool's ambition of stealing fourth now looking suspiciously in need of a result against Arsenal in their next fixture. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

The Left Wing: Champions Cup returns, Jacob Stockdale's development, and Simon Zebo goes back to Munster

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport