With the race for the title all but over, all eyes have turned to the fight for the remaining top four positions. There was perhaps no game more important to that race than last weekend’s clash between Manchester United and Liverpool. A win for Liverpool would have propelled them into second, but a win for United would see them move at least four points clear of third.
Mourinho named his strongest side, with Bailly coming back into the side. De Gea started in goal with a back four of Valencia, Smalling, and Young alonside Bailly. McTominay once again started in a midfield trio, alongside Matic and Mata, with the latter replacing the injured Pogba. Sánchez, Rashford, and Lukaku were the attacking trio.
Juan Mata got the game underway and the opening exchanges were very sloppy from both sides. The raucous atmosphere at Old Trafford would unsurprisingly be a daunting place for players from both sides to endure. Keeping Salah quiet when Liverpool had possession was a focus for Mourinho’s side and it became immediately obvious the Egyptian was going to be man-marked for the full 90 minutes.
The first goal came with the first shot after just 14 minutes. It all began with a Liverpool corner, which was utterly wasted as the ball went over everyone in the box. The resulting goal kick was flicked on well by Lukaku to Rashford who got in behind the Liverpool defence. Alexander-Arnold was in a good position to neutralise the attack but a slick Ronaldo chop gave Rashford enough space to finesse a shot into the far right corner, well beyond the reach of Karius.
To celebrate the goal, Rashford ran into the crowd for a moment before returning to his teammates, the referee must have missed that though as he didn’t receive a yellow card.
Following the goal, United could sense blood and overloaded the left-hand side of the pitch. Even Mata who was playing on the right-hand side came over to take advantage of the weakness they saw in Alexander-Arnold. When in possession, Liverpool couldn’t unlock the United defence. Salah and Mané were kept quiet and any hopes of a quick equaliser seemed unlikely.
Those hopes were fully extinguished as United made it 2-0 with another goal from Rashford in the 24th minute. Another long ball into the Liverpool final third was dealt with poorly and, after a bit of penalty box pinball, Rashford found himself with the ball. His shot wasn’t anything special but a back peddling Karius couldn’t stop it from hitting the back of the net. Rashford, on his first Premier League start of 2018, was making the game his own.
Rashford received the first yellow card of the game for needlessly going to ground. If the yellow card for jumping into the crowd was given, as it probably should have been, that would have been the end of his game. Oxlade-Chamberlain gets one a few minutes later for taking out McTominay for dispossessing him.
Juan Mata almost made it three shortly before halftime. The ball was crossed wonderfully by Sánchez to Mata who didn’t realise that there are no defenders anywhere near him. With the ball going just above him he opted for an overhead kick which went just inches wide.
At halftime, defensive blunders from Liverpool were all that separated the two teams. They had made three mistakes and United capitalised on two of those. With United only conceding six goals at home all season, it would need something special from Liverpool in the second half to get something from the game.
Liverpool began the second half much better than the first but when they got into the final third that decisive pass constantly let them down. Overhit passes or choosing the wrong option, despite their majority possession, they couldn’t get anything close to goalscoring opportunity.
United switched to a back six as the pressure grew and grew but still they held firm. Even though they barely touched the ball they seemed more dangerous than Liverpool. Klopp decided to bring Lallana on for Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 60th minute to try and inject some creativity into his side.
In the 66th minute, Bailly made a mess of a clearance and accidentally hits the ball into his own net. It came from a Mané cross which posed no real danger for the defence and allowed Liverpool a way back into the game. Rashford made way not long after for Fellaini as Mourinho moved to try and secure the three points.
The substitution surprisingly led to United dominating possession for the next quarter of an hour. Klopp used his second and third changes to bring on Wijnaldum and Solanke for Alexander-Arnold and Robertson but even that didn’t help Liverpool. United were quick to get men behind the ball quickly and the Liverpool attack couldn’t find a way through.
Lingard got introduced a few minutes before the end of regulation time with Mata the player making way and seconds later Valencia got a yellow for a high foot. With just stoppage time left Liverpool were throwing everyone forward to try and get a last minute equaliser and they were gifted six extra minutes to find one. Surprisingly, and despite almost total control of the ball in that time, they failed to challenge de Gea at all. In the dying moments of the game, Mourinho wasted valuable Liverpool seconds taking off Sánchez to bring on Darmian.
The whistle blew not long to rapturous applause and cheering around Old Trafford. It was a hard-fought victory for Manchester United, but a deserved one. They’ll carry that momentum into their Champions League game against Sevilla, where they’ll hope to join Liverpool and Manchester City in the Quarter Finals.