Steven Gerrard sees red as Juan Mata sinks Liverpool
Liverpool 1 Manchester United 2
A moment of madness from Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard saw him sent off just 43 seconds after coming on in his final appearance against Manchester United, whose 2-1 victory at Anfield strengthened their grip on a top-four place.
Just over 11 months ago the midfielder, who leaves the Reds for Los Angeles Galaxy in the summer, was unfortunate with a slip which cost his side defeat at home to Chelsea and ultimately derailed their title dreams.
This time, however, there was no sympathy as less than a minute after being introduced as a half-time substitute his stamp on Ander Herrera saw referee Martin Atkinson produce a red card.
There was an almost audible gasp of disbelief from the majority of the 44,405 inside Anfield before the travelling support burst into a mixture of taunts and celebration.
For all his frustration at having to watch from the sidelines in a fixture in which he has scored seven times in his last 11 league meetings it was inexcusable from the most experienced player on the field.
Goals in either half from the outstanding Juan Mata, the second a brilliant bicycle kick, technically decided the outcome but Gerrard's indiscipline was a major contributory factor in Liverpool's first league defeat since losing 3-0 at Old Trafford in mid-December despite Daniel Sturridge offering a glimmer of hope with a smart finish 20 minutes from the end.
Much had been made of the success of Brendan Rodgers' 3-4-2-1 formation he first employed in that Old Trafford reverse but it worked against Liverpool in the first half as United manager Louis van Gaal was the man with the right plan.
United playing a high midfield four behind lone striker Wayne Rooney meant Mata and Ashley Young were pushed into advanced positions and the former, in particular, used it to great effect against the relatively inexperienced Alberto Moreno.
The Spanish World Cup winner cleverly moved from outside to inside and back again to generate space for himself and the 22-year-old left-back was left in a quandary whether to mark or hand over to centre-back Mamadou Sakho.
Herrera spotted this weakness and in the 14th minute threaded a pass between the two Liverpool players for his compatriot to run onto and clip a shot past goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.
It was a rare moment of quality from either side as Sturridge thrashed an ambitious left-foot volley over and Adam Lallana wastefully drove wide from Liverpool's best move of the match which involved Raheem Sterling, almost anonymous in the first half, and Jordan Henderson switching play from right to left for Sturridge to provide the perfect lay-off.
Special guest Pele had met compatriots Philippe Coutinho and Lucas Leiva, back in the squad after a six-week absence, before kick-off to offer some inspiration but whatever he said appeared to have the opposite effect on Coutinho, who over-complicated things.
Gerrard's emergence after the interval offered renewed optimism, but he was on the pitch for even less time than Pele had been as he stood on the sliding Herrera.
Not only did Gerrard's actions damage their top-four chances in this match, it means he will miss the trip to Arsenal after the international break and the FA Cup quarter-final replay at Blackburn four days later.
Phil Jones escaped with a yellow card for clattering Henderson out by the touchline with a high challenge but that was the least of Liverpool's problems as Mata finished off a clever reverse pass from substitute Angel di Maria to acrobatically volley home.
Coutinho teed up Sturridge to score his fifth goal of an injury-disrupted season and although Liverpool made light of their numerical disadvantage, United - with Marouane Fellaini winning virtually every header at both ends of the pitch - had enough discipline and nous to hold on.
They could even afford for Rooney to have a penalty saved by Mignolet in added time after Emre Can's foul on Daley Blind.
Victory allowed them to open up a five-point gap over their rivals and stay within two points of second-placed Manchester City in what Van Gaal has labelled a rat race.
The United boss would not, however, have envisaged that also involved Gerrard scurrying down a tunnel somewhat shame-faced.