LIVERPOOL, England, March 22 (Reuters) - There was a red card, a cloud of red mist and plenty of crimson faces, but it was ultimately one cool Dutch head that proved the difference in Manchester United’s 2-1 win over Liverpool on Sunday.
Not only did Louis van Gaal comfortably win the tactical battle with Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers, but the iron-willed United coach ensured his players kept their heads as Liverpool lost theirs.
The match will be remembered for Steven Gerrard’s 38-second cameo that ended abruptly when he was sent off for a stamp on Ander Herrera as well as Juan Mata’s match-winning double strike.
Yet the plaudits belong equally with Van Gaal for out-thinking his Liverpool counterpart.
While all the pre-match debate centred on Rodgers’ 3-4-3 formation, a perceived cure-all that had healed Liverpool’s ills from the first half of the season, it was arch-pragmatist Van Gaal who threw all the tactical punches on the day.
United may have scored two goals fewer than they did in the first half against Tottenham Hotspur last weekend but the opening 45 minutes at Anfield was arguably the visitors’ best of the campaign.
For all the gripes Van Gaal has had to face about how far short his United side have fallen from the club’s quasi-mythical traditions of expansive football, his team’s performance on Sunday was not far short of perfect.
This was not the efficient but ugly early-season United but a performance crafted from possession football, with Liverpool chasing shadows for extensive periods and Mata pouncing on openings to score with two expert finishes.
Mata has had to endure his own fair share of criticism since his move from Chelsea but he proved an unfathomable puzzle for Liverpool’s defence throughout the encounter.
The Spaniard gave United the lead after 14 minutes, exposing a chasm of space between centre back Mamadou Sakho and wingback Alberto Moreno to finish sharply.
His second, an acrobatic volley from Angel Di Maria’s lofted ball into the box 14 minutes into the second half, was the sign of a player high on confidence and thriving in a new role that Van Gaal characterised as a “false winger”.
But along with some new-found artistry, there remains plenty of muscle in this United side.
It may not be pretty to behold but the ruggedly physical approach of Marouane Fellaini and the none-too-subtle decision of arch-pragmatist Van Gaal to tailor some of United’s game to his strengths continues to pay huge dividends.
The familiar sight of the Belgian backing into defenders with elbows and arms flailing is perhaps not one for purists raised on diets of Charlton, Law and Best or Giggs, Scholes and Beckham.
But at a time when the possibility of missing out on the Champions League for a second season remains, results are the only currency and Fellaini is more than paying his way.
Van Gaal’s most astute move, however, in the build up to Sunday’s clash was spotting in advance that a game of this importance could be lost by a moment of madness.
The Dutchman had spoken about keeping emotions in check when the Anfield cauldron inevitably reached boiling point and his players heeded the message with impeccable discipline.
Van Gaal had been refereeing training ground matches during the week with the express purpose of demonstrating how to keep a lid on tempers that are always likely to be tested in encounters between these two clubs.
Gerrard’s impetuous stamp on Herrera was, by his own admission, a moment of foolish indiscipline, but Mario Balotelli, another second-half substitute, also looked perpetually on the verge of doing something equally silly after picking up an early booking.
While Daniel Sturridge’s sharp near-post finish pulled a goal back for Liverpool with 20 minutes left, they never looked like stealing an equaliser.
Five points now separates United and Liverpool. In the battle for a top-four finish, the credit for that belongs with Van Gaal. (Reporting by Toby Davis; editing by Ian Chadband)
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