Sunday 19 January 2020 7:49 pm

Liverpool 2-0 Manchester United: Sweet 16 for Reds as they extend title lead with win over bitter rivals

Even for a supporter base that has become reaccustomed to occasions like this there was a particularly joyous mood in the Anfield crowd at the culmination of this victory.

Because there is going 16 points clear in the Premier League and taking another huge stride towards a first top-flight title in 30 years, and then there is doing it against your biggest rivals.

Even before this game nobody with even a passing interest in football could seriously have imagined that Liverpool would not end the season as English champions for the first time since 1990.

And yet the history between these clubs appeared to breed an irrational level of concern about the significance of this fixture, one that seeped into Liverpool’s play until Mohamed Salah’s injury-time goal.

How Liverpool won it

Salah applied the coup de grace in the 93rd minute, just when United were throwing everyone bar goalkeeper David de Gea forward for a corner that might rescue a point.

When that corner came to nothing, Liverpool keeper Alisson showed that raking diagonal balls are not the sole preserve of Trent Alexander-Arnold and released Salah, who had a clear run at goal.

The Egypt forward held off the chasing Daniel James before beating De Gea with a low shot that the Spaniard ought to have stopped and which was greeted with wild jubilation among the home fans.

Virgil van Dijk had given the hosts an early lead with a powerful header from Alexander-Arnold’s pinpoint corner but Liverpool somehow failed to add to their lead until the dying moments.

Missed chances

The runaway league leaders saw two goals chalked off before half-time, the first – a fine, curling shot by Roberto Firmino – because of a contentious challenge by Van Dijk on De Gea seconds earlier that took a video assistant referee referral to detect.

Georginio Wijnaldum also thought he had scored, slotting in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s through-ball, but the Holland midfielder was correctly flagged offside.

Sadio Mane
Mane was uncharacteristically wasteful as Liverpool struggled to add to Van Dijk’s opener

Sadio Mane looked unusually hurried, fluffing one chance with a poor touch, firing another too close to De Gea and later dragging a third wide of the far post after being forced onto his left foot.

Salah missed the most glaring opening, however, scuffing wide from point-blank range when picked out by Andrew Robertson’s low cross, while Jordan Henderson drew a fingertip save from De Gea.

Palpable relief at Anfield

United’s occasional attacks – Andreas Pereira was inches away from converting Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s ball across goal – seemed futile at first, given Liverpool’s weight of chances in what proved a hugely enjoyable spectacle.

But as the home side failed to increase their lead, the visitors scented a chance to grab a point – they remain the only team to have held Jurgen Klopp’s men in the league this term – and nerves grew around Anfield.

First the influential Fred was allowed to advance to the edge of the penalty box and shot wide; then Anthony Martial wasted a smart one-two with a wild finish.

Not until Salah streaked clear to ensure Liverpool took full advantage of Manchester City and Leicester’s slip-ups at the weekend was the result safe – and the relief palpable.

Rashford injury a worry

United now trail Liverpool by 30 points – testament to the former’s flaws as well as the sustained brilliance of the latter’s 21 wins from 22 league games.

They remain fifth, though, and just five points behind a Chelsea team who also dropped points on Saturday.

Of deep concern for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be that Marcus Rashford, whose 16 goals in his last 21 games has given them hope of a top-four finish, faces an extended spell on the sidelines.

Rashford’s double stress fracture in his back is expected to mean two or three months on the sidelines and, given the similar lay-off facing Harry Kane, is not good news for England head of Euro 2020 either.

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