Champions League slips from Liverpool's reach as Gerrard self-destructs
Steven Gerrard's instant sending off allowed Man Utd to firm up their grasp on fourth place with a five-point cushion
Liverpool 1 Manchester United 2. Steven Gerrard was dismissed just 38 seconds after coming on as a half-time substitute in Liverpool's 2-1 defeat to Manchester United.
It was inexcusable from the 34-year-old Gerrard, a shocking act for the Reds' captain and a man with over 100 international caps to his name.
Introduced for Adam Lallana with Liverpool trailing the visitors 1-0 at Anfield, Gerrard reacted to a challenge from Ander Herrera by stamping on the Spaniard. Referee Martin Atkinson showed Gerrard red and off he went, and with him went Liverpool's hopes of getting back into the game.
Juan Mata, who had scored United's first goal on 14 minutes, doubled their advantage with a second strike on 59 minutes, and though Daniel Sturridge pulled a goal back for Liverpool on 70 minutes it wasn't enough.
The win – on a weekend when the top three all triumphed – means United consolidate their position in fourth, just two points behind Arsenal, but significantly they are now five clear of Liverpool, who are fifth and in danger of missing out on Champions League qualification.
Gerrard, who now set to miss three games because of his moment of madness, later apologised for his actions, telling reporters: "I need to accept it, the decision was right. I've let down my team-mates and the fans. I take full responsibility."
Asked what had prompted his loss of control, he replied: "I don't know what caused it. Probably just a reaction to the initial tackle [by Herrera]. I shouldn't say more about it really. I've just come out here to apologise to the dressing room and supporters."
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers proved himself the master of the understatement when asked what he thought of his captain's indiscretion. "He is a wonderful captain and came on hoping he could influence the game," explained Rodgers, "but that was probably not the way he would have liked it."
It suited United, however, who ended Liverpool's unbeaten league run of 13 games and also extended their winning streak to four. "One of the most important moments in my career," was how United manager Louis van Gaal described the victory, the 63-year-old Dutchman adding: "We are playing like a team more than ever and played very good football in the first half."
And van Gaal singled out Juan Mata for particular praise. That's no surprise considering his brace of goals, including a spectacular scissor-kick for the second. "Juan is one of my better players," he said. "I looked for balance and now I have found a position where he plays very good and he also scores."
It's been a frustrating 15 months for Mata since he arrived at Old Trafford from Chelsea at the start of last year but the Spanish star came good on Sunday with two goals that keep his side in the hunt for a place in next season's Champions League. "I think it's my best game in a United shirt, yes," reflected Mata. "It was important for me. The last few months I've not had the best moment. It is the manager who decides but I'm happy today."