Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal is targeting a second placed finish after the Red Devils’ 2-1 victory over arch rivals – and fellow Champions League contenders – Liverpool.
Juan Mata notched either side of half time to put the visitors into a commanding lead at Anfield, though ten-man Liverpool – who had substitute Steven Gerrard sent off in the first minute of the second half – did pull one back through Daniel Sturridge.
Wayne Rooney missed a late penalty that would have put more gleam on what was a dominant display, but Van Gaal was thrilled with his side’s proficiency.
“I’m very happy that we’ve won and that we’ve opened up a gap from the teams below us,” he told MUTV.
“We can still look up and finish second. It is a significant win because we’re five points ahead of Liverpool now but if we’d lost we would have been a point behind them.
“The win is important not only for the fans, but for me too. I’m very pleased for the fans, we’ve beaten Liverpool twice [in the league] now, so I’m very happy.”
United got off to a flying start on Sunday, with Liverpool unable to stem the visitors’ rampant midfield, Mata and Marouane Fellaini looking particularly dangerous.
And they took a deserved lead when Mata latched onto an exquisite through-ball from compatriot Ander Herrera before dispatching neatly past Simon Mignolet.
Adam Lallana should have restored parity for the hosts midway through the half, but the former Southampton midfielder failed to round off a superb counter-attacking move when he fired wide after being teed up by Sturridge in United’s box.
Brendan Rodgers introduced Liverpool legend Gerrard at half-time as he looked to add some experience and grit to his lightweight midfield.
However, the former England skipper only made matters worse for his team when, just 45 seconds into what may be his last appearance in the classic fixture, he stamped on Herrera after the Spaniard had mistimed a sliding tackle.
Referee Martin Atkinson reached immediately for his red card, and United made that numerical advantage count when Mata doubled his tally soon after.
After some tidy build-up play on the edge of the Liverpool area, Angel Di Maria dinked an inch-perfect chip in the direction of Mata, who adjusted himself superbly before firing home with a sublime volley from a tight angle.
Liverpool did apply some late pressure after Sturridge beat David De Gea at the Spaniard’s near-post, but United were given the chance to put the result beyond all doubt when Daley Blind was felled by Emre Can in the penalty area.
Reds captain Rooney – who had failed to show his form of recent weeks during the proceedings – stepped up to take the spot-kick, but his below-par effort was well saved by Mignolet.
Rooney has now failed to score at Anfield since 2005, and there was more controversy in the dying seconds when Martin Skrtel seemed to stamp on the De Gea.
Despite the hectic climax, United held on to take the spoils – solidifying their position in fourth in the process.
“I liked the atmosphere, our fans and, of course, the start of the game,” added Van Gaal, who experienced his first taste of the clash at Anfield, and signaled out Mata for his excellent performance.
“Mata was also very good last week [against Tottenham],” he added.
“And I wasn’t going to change my best player. When you play well, you shall always play. Mata has confirmed again today what he can do.”
It was not just the manager who was pleased with the showing however, with Mata himself claiming that Sunday was his happiest day as a United player.
“The game was massive for us because of the position in the table, the rivalry and the history between the two clubs,” said Mata, who has now bagged 14 goals for United since arriving at Old Trafford last January.
“It is the happiest day since I came to the club. I am very happy for the fans, for the team and happy with the performance and the three points.
“This win is important, but it’s no more than three points. We have some very important games to go against direct rivals.
“But you could feel from the beginning of the week how much the supporters wanted us to win here. It’s a massive game, the biggest in England.”
Main image courtesy of RTV via YouTube, with thanks.