Straightforward victories away from Anfield haven't exactly been the norm in recent seasons, and aside from the 4-1 romp at Old Trafford in 2009, victories away to Manchester United have been anything but normal. Today was as comfortable as it gets, though, and in a match that was billed as being hugely significant for both sides, Liverpool were the only side that looked like winning.
Manchester United 0
Liverpool 3: Gerrard (pen.) 34' (pen.) 46', Suarez 84'
The lone change made by Brendan Rodgers saw Liverpool set up the same way they did after an hour at Southampton--Raheem Sterling came in for Philippe Coutinho at St. Mary's Stadium and operated at the tip of a midfield diamond, and today he was tasked with the same role from the starting, leaving Coutinho on the bench along with Lucas and Mamadou Sakho, both of whom were making their return to the matchday squad after lengthy spells out through injury.
It didn't start terribly for the hosts, who showed signs of nerves but weren't completely overwhelmed in terms of possession. Both sides were sloppy when they did have the ball, with the biggest difference being Liverpool's willingness to press and harry to win it back. Each of Sterling, Jordan Henderson, and Joe Allen collapsed quickly when United were trying to build, looking to spring counterattacks rather than stretch their opposition with long spells of patient passing.
A few early chances emerged as a result, both falling to Daniel Sturridge; Henderson played him in on goal only to see a right-footed effort pushed wide, and the front man later fluffed a left-footed shot after pulling back past a sliding Nemanja Vidic. Thankfully they would atone for missed chances in the 34th minute, when Steven Gerrard converted a smartly won penalty by Luis Suarez. Shortly after a crunching tackle that rightly saw Rafael booked, some neat interplay down the left eventually led to Sterling pushing play to Sturridge on the right flank. A delicate touch by Suarez from Sturridge's cross was deliberately handled by Rafael for the penalty (but not a red card for the Brazilian), which Gerrard slotted coolly for the lead.
United responded well from there, with their best chance of the match denied by Simon Mignolet after Wayne Rooney lashed a powerful shot on goal from the edge of the area. Liverpool saw out first-half injury time comfortably and then, before things were settled after the restart, were 2-0 up via another Gerrard penalty. This time it was Henderson and Allen combining in attack, with the former flicking a neat pass into the latter, who was clumsily bundled over by Phil Jones for Liverpool's second penalty of the day. Second verse, same as the first.
You'd have expected a United side to impose themselves on the match in a valiant fightback from there--or at any point, really--but aside from wasted efforts by Robin van Persie and desperate penalty shouts, they were grasping at straws. Sturridge's dive got Nemanja Vidic sent off and won Liverpool another spot-kick that Gerrard missed, and Luis Suarez piled on the misery in the 84th minute when he controlled a scuffed Sturridge shot well before curling past De Gea, which only served to speed up the fire drill in progress at Old Trafford.
In many ways this one mirrored the reverse fixture, particularly in regards to how comfortably the victory came in contrast to the more competitive matches that preceded them. In September the scoreline was narrow but was less nervy than the wins over Stoke City and Aston Villa, and today's was rarely as concerning as victories at Southampton and Fulham and home to Swansea. Given how successful United have been for two decades, that's a surprising--albeit very welcome--change.
United being poor doesn't take much of anything away from how well Liverpool were set up today, and again a large part of the credit goes to Brendan Rodgers for getting his selection and tactics right. There was the expected bit of sloppiness early, and it took a bit longer for some to shake off the rust, but Liverpool pressed the life out of United and defending when they needed to, and aside from two or three isolated chances, the three points never really looked in doubt.
With Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge less consistent than we've come to expect (even if Suarez got the cherry on top late), most of the praise is reserved for the efforts in midfield and defense. Joe Allen was superb on the left side of midfield, providing a spark going forward when needed and aiding Jon Flanagan--whose early yellow complicated matters--at nearly every turn. Steven Gerrard was the man for the big occasion yet again, showing signs that he might yet acclimate to the holding midfield role more successfully than we'd thought, and while Jordan Henderson's first touch was poor, especially in the first half, his willing running and pressing was vital.
Across the back things were solid if unspectactular, as Simon Mignolet made an important early save but had little else to do, and the back four of Glen Johnson, Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger, and Flanagan performed admirably. That's two successive 3-0 away wins for a defense that's struggled to keep things tidy with any sort of consistency, and while there might be individual worries (Flanagan's rashness, Johnson's struggles to get back up to speed), their performances in the past two are wholly encouraging.
Raheem Sterling impressed in a more central role yet again while also providing support defensively, and Philippe Coutinho was similarly effective with the match mostly wrapped up. Sturridge and Suarez weren't at their best, but both had a decisive part to play in two of Liverpool's three goals. Even when they're off, they're on.
As it turned out, the nerves weren't justified, and what we've learned about Liverpool and Manchester United held true. Headed in opposite directions for most of the first 28 matches of the season, the outcome of the 29th was never in doubt. Nine matches to go, and both clubs' fates look settled--Liverpool are well and truly in a title challenge, while United are staring down a mid-table finish.