Manchester United produced the ultimate smash-and-grab victory at Anfield as Wayne Rooney’s 78th-minute goal decided a game barely befitting of England’s two most decorated clubs.
While Rooney was the match-winner with the visitors’ only shot on target, David de Gea made the 1-0 win possible with a string of saves and was by far the busier of the two goalkeepers.
It was just Rooney’s sixth goal in 24 appearances for both Everton and United against Liverpool and his first at Anfield for 11 years, but it edged him to within seven of Sir Bobby Charlton’s club record of 249 and lifted his side back up to fifth, two points behind Tottenham.
Louis van Gaal’s tactics may have been criticised as boring – and one shot on target in 90 minutes hardly did much to alter that – but he will see them as fully justified after leaving with all three points.
The hosts dominated but in the opening 45 minutes managed just one effort on target and that was a tame attempt by Adam Lallana who, having been given a run on goal from Lucas Leiva’s ball over the top, directed a downward header straight at De Gea with Roberto Firmino firing the rebound wide.
James Milner and Jordan Henderson also failed to trouble the United goalkeeper, the latter’s volley coming from the best move of the half involving some intricate play by the Reds captain, Lallana and Firmino.
United, who had to replace the injured Ashley Young with 18-year-old Cameron Borthwick-Jackson just before the break, failed to test Simon Mignolet – which was unforgivable considering the errors the Belgium international has been forced into this season.
Liverpool continued to play with the initiative in the second half and De Gea twice denied Emre Can, once with a brilliant save and the Spain international recovered quickly to prevent Firmino scoring from the rebound. Henderson made the United keeper’s job easy for him by planting Firmino’s cutback straight into his arms.
United could have snatched the lead when Anthony Martial flashed an angled shot wide of the far post but, after Mamadou Sakho had headed over another chance, the visitors delivered the sucker punch.
Liverpool’s fallibility at set-pieces is becoming as much a part of the club’s history as five European Cups and 18 league titles and it was their undoing once again 12 minutes from time.
From a short corner, substitute Juan Mata’s cross was headed against the crossbar by Fellaini and Rooney reacted quickest to smash home.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp acted immediately, replacing centre-back Kolo Toure with striker Christian Benteke and later sending on newly-signed defender Steven Caulker to play up front for the second match running, but it could not patch up the second of his side’s two obvious problems.
While striker Daniel Sturridge is still recovering from a hamstring injury sustained in early December, the Reds are toothless in attack and until that – and the aerial weakness at the back – are addressed there will be more results like this.