There are two types of game in a season that have special reverence with fans. Some are temporary, borne out of particular circumstance, of league position. Others are ingrained in the fabric of the respective clubs, through geography, success, similarity. The game against Liverpool on Sunday was an intoxicating cocktail of both.
The performance that saw United demolish Spurs just a week before was replicated in the first half of the game at Anfield. The same XI, the same balance, the same tenacity. Straight from the off it was clear Louis van Gaal had set his team up to completely out-play Liverpool, to extinguish the fiery first-half tempo that has so defined Brendan Rodgers’ team.
The second half left a little more to be desired but the pressure of having the extra man was an underestimated hindrance. Despite the clear drop in United’s tempo, there was never any doubt that the game was already won.
Michael Carrick will soon be eating paella and embarking upon a career in salsa if he continues to shine as part of a trio alongside Herrera and Mata and it cannot be coincidental that van Gaal’s team has found balance and composure (as it did earlier in the season) when Carrick returns to the orchestra pit.
There was a feeling that it was the baptism of one player’s Premier League career and the wake of another’s. Unfortunately for Steven Gerrard, his act of utter lunacy has come at a time when United fans have limited opportunities to celebrate and at a pivotal stage in their rebuild. The stage was set for him to deliver a farewell performance and the curtains closed before he had the opportunity to deliver a line.
Conversely, Juan Mata stole the show. Despite the statistics that endorse him as the most productive midfielder since his arrival from Spain in 2011 (most combined goals and assists), there has been an underlying impression that he hasn’t settled in, that he hasn’t found his feet. Surely now, there can be little argument to the notion that the Spaniard’s Premier League career is well and truly under way.
He may not realise it just yet but when Mata finishes his career at Old Trafford, there’ll be a gift-wrapped parcel of United history with his name etched on it.
In amongst all the hype and the comparison, it’s worth noting that United are on a clear upwards trajectory. Whether or not that continues beyond this season will only become apparent in time but it does United and Louis Van Gaal a disservice to suggest that they are treading the same path as Liverpool.
Whether Liverpool overachieved last season is arguable but given the respective finishes of each of these English greats last May, you’d have to say that van Gaal has the upper hand.
Brendan Rodgers was within touching distance of the perch that so eluded Liverpool under the reign of Sir Alex Ferguson but, rather like Gerrard, the Dutchman has trodden on his hopes.