Marcus Rashford was the hero for Manchester United as they battled to a 2-1 win over Liverpool on Saturday afternoon, a result that strengthens their grip on second place and all but guarantees a top-four finish.
The pre-match talk at Old Trafford focused on the absence of midfielder Paul Pogba, who picked up an injury in training the previous day but by the end of the first half it was Rashford’s name on everybody’s lips as the winger scored twice within the space of 10 minutes to hand Jose Mourinho’s side a comfortable lead.
Whilst the opening 45 minutes saw United produce a fantastic display made up of grit at the back and adventurous football going forward, the second half was played out largely in the hosts’ half, as Liverpool took control of proceedings. An Eric Bailly own goal further buoyed Jurgen Klopp’s men but United were able to weather sustained Liverpool pressure to emerge with a vital three points.
Mourinho made three changes to the side that staged a remarkable comeback at Crystal Palace just five days earlier. Bailly was handed his first start since the beginning of November, taking the place of Victor Lindelof at the heart of the defence and, own goal aside, put in a performance of the highest order. In midfield, Juan Mata came in for the injured Pogba whilst Rashford was handed his first start of 2018 down United’s left wing.
The game’s pattern was set right from kick-off with Liverpool enjoying the lion’s share of possession whilst the hosts looked menacing on the counter-attack. With 24 league goals to his name, it was clear that the visitors would look to star man Mohamed Salah for inspiration, with Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane completing the away side’s menacing front three. Unfortunately for Jurgen Klopp’s men, United’s back four were in bullish mood and afforded Liverpool little time and space to play their expansive, attacking football, with Ashley Young, in particular, doing extremely well to reduce Salah to a bit-part role in proceedings.
With nearly a quarter of an hour gone, the deadlock was broken. A long punt forward by David de Gea was met by the head of Romelu Lukaku, who flicked the ball into space for Rashford to run onto, who had Trent Alexander-Arnold for company. The England international pulled off a smart trick to cut inside on his favoured right foot, leaving his marker in his wake and unleashed an unstoppable shot past the helpless Lorius Karius and into the back of the net, sending Old Trafford into raptures. It was no more than United’s play had deserved at this point and that goal galvanised the home side, who were expertly dealing with any potential Liverpool attacks.
Whilst Klopp’s men were enjoying more of the ball, United were the more clinical of the two, an issue which was made apparent midway through the first half. A Liverpool corner made its way to Virgil van Dijk who, from a few yards out had managed to escape his marker, only for the Dutchman to mistime his header and see the ball come off his shoulder and go out harmlessly for a goal kick. It was a huge let-off for the home side who ought to have picked up the £75 million man’s ran and yet, a few seconds later, United had doubled their advantage.
Yet again it all stemmed from a de Gea kick upfield, with Lukaku the target. The big Belgian, who put in another fantastic performance for the Reds, bullied Dejan Lovren in the air and played in Juan Mata through the middle. Opting to take a touch instead of shooting first time, the ball bounced off the retreating van Dijk, falling kindly to the onrushing Rashford, whose low effort took a slight deflection off Alexander-Arnold and into the net, making it 2-0. By now, United were fully in control of proceedings and, bar a couple of tame, long-range Roberto Firmino efforts, de Gea was untested in goal.
A few minutes later, a well-worked team move saw Alexis Sanchez pick out Mata in the box, completely unmarked. The Spaniard had time to take a touch and bury his shot but instead opted for the spectacular, with his bicycle kick ending up on the wrong side of the post. At the half-time whistle, Old Trafford was in full voice having witnessed one of United’s best performances of the season, although the second period would prove to be a showcase of their defensive talents and character.
Shortly after the restart, Liverpool had a chance to half their deficit, only to see van Dijk’s looping header sail onto the roof of the net. The majority of the half was played with United on the back foot and whilst de Gea was rarely called into action, Mourinho’s men worked tirelessly to deny Liverpool the space they so craved.
Midway through the second 45, Klopp’s men were handed a lifeline. Having skipped past the impressive Scott McTominay on the left flank, Sadio Mane put in a weak cross that should have been meat and drink for Bailly, who was stationed at the near post. Instead, the Ivorian attempted a left-footed clearance that went horribly wrong, as the ball ricocheted off his heel and into his own goal, past a puzzled de Gea. That fortuitous goal lifted Liverpool spirits and cast doubt into United’s mind.
Despite the constant pressure, the hosts remained resolute in defence, even as the referee awarded a staggering six minutes of added time. With the seconds ticking away, the ball fell kindly for Salah just inside the United box, only for the Egyptian to blast his effort over the bar, much to the delight of the home support.
As the final whistle went, relief and sheer delight swept over Old Trafford, as Mourinho now plans for United’s next major fixture, the visit of Spanish outfit Sevilla for Tuesday night’s Champions League last-16 second leg.