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Liverpool 1, Manchester United 2: Disappointing Defeat, Brilliant Spectacle

In a match that had a little bit of everything--including Steven Gerrard sent off less than a minute after coming on--it was Juan Mata's brace that settled it as United dealt Liverpool's top four hopes a costly blow.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Liverpool 1: Sturridge 69'
Manchester United 2: Mata 14' 59'

Giggling mindlessly isn't a particularly profound reaction, but it seemed the only one appropriate for a match that had, by the 70-minute mark, become a three-ring circus. A dismal first half from the hosts was a distant memory, with Liverpool down to ten men after Steven Gerrard's sending-off within a minute of coming on, a second goal from Juan Mata, the introduction of that great bastion of calmness and neutrality, Mario Balotelli, and a goal from Daniel Sturridge combining to create a wild spectacle.

Sadly the spectacle didn't earn Liverpool any points, and the concerns that emerged from another inconsistent display will outlast the mind-numbing wonder created by a series of increasingly bizarre incidents. Brendan Rodgers' failure to adapt more quickly, Gerrard's incredibly stupid moment of petulance and malice, and a string of poor individual performances do not bode well for the run-in, and after today, they have even more ground to make up.

United were in control once the match settled, quickly establishing dominance in midfield and carrying the majority of possession. They looked dangerous nearly every time they got forward, with Liverpool unable to cope with the pressure and giving the ball away at an alarming rate. Alberto Moreno was among the worst offenders for the hosts, but nobody looked calm or composed, and the visitors were able to take advantage with a cutting move just before the 20-minute mark.

Not for the first time Moreno was caught out, with Ander Herrera sliding a perfect pass in behind the young Spaniard to an onrushing Juan Mata, who took one touch before beating Simon Mignolet with a right-footed effort at the far post. Some discussion about whether or not Mignolet could have done better, but this was a systemic failure, and one that United were happy to exploit time and again.

Liverpool were fortunate to be down just a goal at the break, and should have been level through Adam Lallana after the first bit of encouraging play from the hosts. Daniel Sturridge's pass into space was left the creative midfielder with a clear look on goal, but his left-footed strike was off-target with David De Gea rooted. Their best and only chance of the opening 45 minutes, and Lallana's last meaningful involvement after coming off at the half for Gerrard due to injury.

There was no meaningful involvement for Gerrard after that point either, unfortunately, as he was sent off for a clearly intentional stamp on Ander Herrera in the 46th minute. Herrera came sliding through with a fairly aggressive tackle of his own, but Gerrard's reaction was inexcusable, quickly stamping his left boot down on his opponent's leg and making sure it stayed there. Awful, awful stuff from the captain, who will now miss a minimum of three matches and left his teammates short-handed for the final 45-plus minutes.

Liverpool actually looked a fair bit better with only 10 men, strangely, but United extended their lead on the hour through another Mata goal. This one was beautiful, with substitute Angel Di Maria lofting a ball over the top for the diminutive midfielder to side-volley past Mignolet. Up 2-0 and cruising, it seemed, with Liverpool in damage control mode and tiring rapidly.

But they didn't crumble, and United were suddenly scattered in a match in which they had looked so controlled. Daniel Sturridge cut the deficit in half ten minutes after Mata's volley, beating De Gea on the near side after Balotelli and Philippe Coutinho had won back possession deeper in midfield. Suddenly Liverpool had a foothold, and with the crowd back into it, an equalizer seemed possible.

It never came, though, as they couldn't test De Gea any further and ran out of gas as they searched for a second goal. The match was increasingly volatile as it played out, with a number of bookings and strange incidents, and the cherry on top came in stoppage time, with Daley Blind winning a penalty and chance for Wayne Rooney to score at Anfield for the first time in a decade. Rooney's effort was saved well by Mignolet, and, a late break with Martin Skrtel at striker later, it was all over.

The combination of weirdness and badness makes this hard to evaluate, but the concerns mentioned earlier will no doubt have their share of attention over the course of the international break. Few excelled on the day, with only Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho emerging faultless among the outfield players. Sturridge's strike was well-taken, Coutinho and Jordan Henderson worked hard, and Joe Allen improved as the match wore on, but there was little in the way of positives.

Their response at ten men was heartening, but the general lack of discipline was not, with a number of disappointing incidents throughout the match. Gerrard's received the most attention, and rightfully so, but Balotelli and Skrtel were also responsible for intentionally leaving their studs on an opponent. That's not been a feature under Rodgers, and while the manager didn't cover himself in glory, he was let down by his players in that regard.

The international break will now seem that much longer, and Liverpool's chances at finishing in the top four are now that much slimmer. Recovery is possible, but more important now is that Brendan Rodgers gets his squad back in form for the rest of this season and set up to enter the next campaign with a clear plan--and the personnel to execute it--in place.

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