Manchester United beat Liverpool 2-1 on Saturday to extend the gap between the two rivals to five points.
Given that Jose Mourinho has been criticised for his tactics and squad selection all season – from United fans as much as from those outside of the club – you would imagine it was a fairly satisfying result for the manager. At several points during the season, social media has been awash with people claiming that he’s no longer cut out for top-level management, yet week by week he’s answering his critics.
When his side drew 0-0 at Anfield, Mourinho was roundly criticised for the way he set up his team to defend.
His side arguably had the best chance of the game though but Romelu Lukaku fluffed it, something he claims he struggled to get out of his head afterwards.
“I was thinking about it for the next two games like, ‘should I have played it at the first post?’” Lukaku said ahead of Saturday’s game. “At the end of the day, you want to win, so when you are in a situation where you can make your team win, and you don’t, it stays in your mind.”
Lukaku put in a good performance against Liverpool this time around though and, despite not getting on the score sheet himself, played a role in the lead up to both of Marcus Rashford’s goals.
The Belgian claimed an assist for the first, after he beat Dejan Lovren in the air to head the ball in to the path of United’s young forward. He then played the ball through to Juan Mata ahead of Rashford scoring the second. He dropped to his knees in celebration, clearly delighted to see his side taking a two-goal lead.
But the day was all about Rashford, who has played for United since he was seven years old, with his goals earning his boyhood team a win against their fierce rivals.
“It was good for Marcus, good for us,” Mourinho said after the game. “I think it’s special for him. Local boy, you know that better than me. A local boy, academy boy, to score against Liverpool at Old Trafford is a special feeling for him. If he could choose to score goals against somebody, I am pretty sure he would choose to score against Liverpool.”
In his relatively short career to date, Rashford has now scored goals against Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal, and any doubts that he would be on the plane to Russia as part of Gareth Southgate’s England squad have been dismissed.
He turned 20 this season, but has proven time and again, despite his young age, that he is the man for the big moment. He doesn’t get overawed by the occasion.
By contrast, Liverpool’s academy graduate Trent Alexander-Arnold had a torrid time trying to keep up with Rashford, and should have done better for both goals. It was a surprise to see him last until the 80th minute before Jurgen Klopp opted to take him off.
Liverpool’s only goal of the game came from an Eric Bailly mistake, with the unconventional defender making his first start for months and, despite a largely impressive performance, tried to clear a Sadio Mané cross with his wrong foot and directed the ball past David de Gea.
Bailly is a popular figure among the United fan base, but there’s no denying that if Chris Smalling or Phil Jones made such a poor error they would have been crucified for it.
Luckily for the home, Liverpool posed little to no threat during the game, despite their masses of possession. Their last shot on target came in the 31st minute when Firmino kicked the ball in to De Gea’s arms. The Brazilian had their only other shot on target before that, which also went straight to the goalkeeper.
United were worthy winners, but this didn’t stop Liverpool supporters grumbling at full-time. They believed they were owed two penalties but they were clutching at straws. The first was when the ball struck Antonio Valencia’s arm in the penalty area. Yet his arm was by his side, it wasn’t deliberate, he didn’t move his arm towards the ball and it wasn’t in an unnatural position, so there were no grounds for a penalty.
The second came when Mané and substitute Marouane Fellaini tangled in the box. On first viewing, it looked like a stonewall penalty, yet when you study the replay it’s clear that Fellaini is ahead of Mané before the Liverpool forward puts his leg in front of Fellaini’s. If United fans were honest, they’d be crying out for a penalty too, particularly if they were on the losing side against their rivals, but the decision not to award a spot kit wasn’t the striking error that Klopp argued it was after the final whistle.
Still, if Liverpool are relying on own goals and dubious penalty claims just to earn a draw, it’s clear the better team won on the day.
The gap between United and City is not one that anyone inside Old Trafford can be happy with, yet they will be relieved to have some breathing room between them and the teams below them.
Mourinho got it right in a big game, yet again, and following the comebacks against Chelsea and Crystal Palace in the past fortnight, it’s looking like he knows more about football than angry United fans and rival supporters claiming he’s past it on Twitter. Who would have thought it?