LIVERPOOL: If Manchester United and not Liverpool make it into the top four at the end of the season they will owe it all to the double of a 3:0 win over their old rivals last December’s and a feisty and rare 2-1 success at Anfield.

It was a mixed day though for England’s past and present captains, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney. Gerrard was sent off 38 seconds after coming on at half-time and Rooney saw a stoppage-time penalty saved by keeper Simon Mignolet.

Between December 14 and yesterday Liverpool, copying Louis Van Gaal’s 3-4-3 system, had been unbeaten. They have a less difficult run-in than United but this defeat left them five points adrift in fifth place and may have taken too much wind out of their sails.

Van Gaal, approached by Liverpool before they appointed Brendan Rodgers in 2012, never had any doubt about the significance of the game. For years this was a far more important ‘derby’ than United’s twice-a-season meetings with Manchester City. When plain Alex Ferguson arrived at United he set a target of emulating Liverpool and by the end of his reign United had surpassed them in terms of league titles.

Even United’s cook told Van Gaal before the game how much the game meant to fans and the players picked it up too. From kickoff United were the more aggressive and dominant and were rewarded with a 14th-minute opening goal from Juan Mata.

Liverpool raised their own game and pace in response but Adam Lallana shot wide in the 34th minute after a sweeping crossfield move launched by Jordan Henderson.

However the real drama for a 45,000 crowd including Pele was reserved for the second half. Liverpool brought on Gerrard at half-time but his enthusiasm to join the action went over the top – literally – and within 48 seconds he was being sent off by referee Martin Atkinson for stamping on Ander Herrera.

Seventh red

That was the seventh red card of his career and his second against United.

Gerrard said later: “The decision was right. I’ve let the team down, the manager down and, more importantly, the fan down. I reacted wrong. I’ve been in the game long enough to know what happens when you do something like that.”

When Mata scored his own, and United’s, second goal 10 minutes later it might have been all over. His goal was set up by Angel Di Maria, United’s unsettled substitute playing a positive role by contrast with Gerrard.

Liverpool gained inspiration from adversity. Sturridge punished an error by Michael Carrick to pulled back one goal to set up a lively finale. But United would have ended even further ahead had Simon Mignolet not leaped to his right to beat away Rooney’s penalty.

Mata, clearly man of the match, considered this his best game in 15 months a United. He said: “It’s a massive game in the history of Engish football so to come here, win and score two goals was a great day for me.”

Chelsea┬áremain six points clear of Manchester City at the top of the table. Jose Mourinho’s men have a game in hand though they were given a scare before beating Hull 3:2.

The Blues took a quick two-goal lead, were pulled back to 2-2 and then needed a late winner from Loic Remy with his first touch after appearing as substitute.

Thibaut Courtois was both villain and hero. His poor clearance gifted Abel Fernandez Hull’s first-half equaliser but he then made three magnificent rapid-fire saves as Hull pressed midway through the second half.

** Bristol City won the Football League Trophy for lower division clubs, beating Walsall 2-0 at Wembley.