Marcus Rashford scored twice as Manchester United held on to beat Liverpool and strengthen their grip on second place in the Premier League.
The win meant Jose Mourinho’s side narrowed the gap on runaway leaders Manchester City to 13 points – at least until City play at Stoke on Monday – but, more pertinently, they are now five points clear of the third-placed Merseysiders.
Rashford, making his first league start since 26 December, will rightly grab the headlines but Romelu Lukaku was instrumental in both goals, and Liverpool simply could not deal with his physical power in the first half.
First, the Belgium striker’s header from David de Gea’s clearance found Rashford charging into the visitors’ box, and he cut inside Trent Alexander-Arnold before firing into the bottom corner.
For United’s second goal, Lukaku held up the ball from another goal-kick before feeding Juan Mata and, although he could not get a shot away, the ball fell for Rashford to score via a slight deflection from Alexander-Arnold.
At that stage Liverpool were second best in every area of the pitch and could have fallen further behind when Mata volleyed acrobatically wide from an Alexis Sanchez cross.
Jurgen Klopp’s side improved dramatically after the break and, with United defending deep, the visitors cranked up the pressure without ever really opening up their hosts.
It took an own goal for the Reds to reduce the deficit when Eric Bailly turned Sadio Mane’s cross past De Gea while attempting to clear at the near post.
That gave Liverpool’s travelling fans hope but their side could not fashion any further clear chances, even in six often chaotic minutes of stoppage time.
United survived to clinch victory in the first of three games here in the next seven days that will shape their season.
Next up are Sevilla on Tuesday, with a place in the last eight of the Champions League at stake, before they face Brighton in the FA Cup quarter-finals next Saturday.
Rashford returns to run riot
The arrival of Sanchez from Arsenal in January has had ramifications for several United players, including Rashford, who had played fewer than 100 minutes as a substitute in 2018 before Saturday.
Rashford has had to wait for his chance but, in front of watching England manager Gareth Southgate, he did not waste it.
With Paul Pogba injured, Sanchez moved inside to play in the hole behind Lukaku, with Rashford and Mata coming back into the team on the left and right.
And while Sanchez again failed to impress, Rashford showed his lack of minutes has not affected his sharpness or his appetite in front of goal.
The 20-year-old now has 12 goals in all competitions this season, making this his most prolific campaign yet.
He had no opportunities to complete what would have been his first senior club hat-trick in the second half, but received a standing ovation when he was replaced by Marouane Fellaini after 77 minutes.
“His performance will give him a lot of confidence – his first goal was absolutely brilliant,” said former England winger Chris Waddle, who was at Old Trafford for BBC Radio 5 live.
“He also did a great job defensively, helping out his left-back Ashley Young in the second half, and he will be disappointed to go off when he did.”
A reality check for Liverpool’s defence
Jurgen Klopp’s side had conceded only one goal in their previous five games but any suggestions that their problems at the back might be over quickly disappeared in a fractious first half.
Lukaku bullied the Reds centre-halves Dejan Lovren and Virgil van Dijk throughout the first period and the carnage that the big Belgian caused allowed his team-mates to capitalise.
True, Liverpool were disjointed all over the pitch before the break, but they were especially disappointing at the back, which is where the damage was done.
The Reds did improve in the second half when they at last managed some meaningful possession, but they struggled to break down a well-drilled United back-line.
Bailly’s own goal means Liverpool are now the highest-scoring away side in Europe’s big five leagues, with 35 on their travels, but this was not one of their attack’s better days.
With space at a premium for Mane and Mohamed Salah, their forays forward lacked their usually lethal punch and, other than pick the ball out of the back of his net, De Gea had little else to do.
Klopp felt his side should have had a penalty when substitute Fellaini tackled Mane inside the area, but genuine scares for the hosts were few and far between.
Man of the match – Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United)
What they said:
Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho, speaking to BBC Match of the Day: “We were quite aggressive in the first half, we wanted to have control of the game, spaces for transition and to try to exploit – not weaknesses – but points where the opponent is not so good.
“The second half it was not our intention to be as defensive as we were. Liverpool pushed us back but I don’t remember the chances that needed David de Gea to make the goal safe. I don’t remember a dangerous situation to our goal. It was control by them having the ball and control by us without the ball. I think we deserved the three points.”
Was this good preparation for the Champions League?
“The three games in the league, the Champions League and the FA Cup are independent events, with no relation to the next match. The human brain is a complex thing. The defeat leaves a bit of damage and victory makes happiness even if you are fatigued. The best thing was to win this match.”
Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp, speaking to BBC Match of the Day: “It was 2-0 down of course – not a good idea against Manchester United. Lukaku is one of the best strikers in the world, we needed to be around to pick up the ball, we were not and Rashford could use the situation twice.
“We had opportunities to shoot from distance but we were not good enough, we did not score and had to chase the game in the second half. We did that, scored one and I think everyone agrees it was a penalty [Fellaini’s tackle on Mane] but that doesn’t help us now.
“It is very important [we bounce back] we have no time to waste.
“We chased the game in the second half and caused them problems, but this is a result game and they have the result and we don’t.”
Two shots on target, two goals
Manchester United have won four of their eight games against fellow ‘big six’ sides in the Premier League this season (W4 D1 L3), twice as many as they managed in the whole of last season (W2 D4 L4).
Liverpool have won only one of their seven Premier League games on the weekends immediately after a Champions League game this season (W1 D4 L2).
Manchester United have won 20 of their 30 Premier League games this season, already surpassing their totals in both 2016-17 (18) and 2015-16 (19) and equalling their number of league wins in 2014-15 (20).
Only Manchester United (67) have profited from more own goals in the Premier League than Liverpool (58).
Manchester United had just two shots on target in this match – both of which were scored by Marcus Rashford.
Rashford has scored with 29% of his shots in the Premier League against ‘big six’ clubs, compared to 10% against the other teams.
Rashford has scored seven of his 16 Premier League goals against teams in the ‘big six’ (44%).
Romelu Lukaku now has seven Premier League assists this season; more than in any previous campaign.
Manchester United look to join Liverpool and neighbours Manchester City in the last eight of the Champions League when they play the second leg of their last-16 tie with Sevilla on Wednesday (kick-off 19:45 GMT), after a 0-0 draw in Spain.
Mourinho’s men return to domestic action on Saturday when they host Brighton in the FA Cup quarter-finals (19:45 GMT) and their next Premier League game is after the international break, when they play Swansea on Saturday, 31 March (15:00 GMT) in what will be their fourth successive game at Old Trafford.
Liverpool are out of the FA Cup but they are in league action next weekend, when they play Watford at Anfield on Saturday (17:30 GMT).