LIVERPOOL, England – It was only three weeks ago that Manchester United was on an eight-match winless streak, Wayne Rooney was so out of form he was dropped to the bench, and manager Louis van Gaal appeared to be contemplating resigning.
Now, United is unbeaten in 2016, Rooney can’t stop scoring and Van Gaal is talking optimistically about winning the Premier League after a 1-0 victory at fierce rival Liverpool on Sunday.
Rooney grabbed his fifth goal in four games since the turn of the year, rifling home a volley from close range after Marouane Fellaini’s header rebounded off the bar to settle a poor-quality game between English soccer’s two most successful clubs.
“I am a happy coach,” said Van Gaal, who has won all four games against Liverpool since joining United in 2014. “I think this game will give a big boost to players, fans, everyone in the environment of Manchester United. We have to continue this . . . we can do it (win the league).”
United remained two points behind fourth-place Tottenham in the race for Champions League qualification, and moved up a place to fifth thanks to only a second win in nine league games. With leader Arsenal drawing 0-0 at Stoke, United is only seven points out of first place.
Playing at Anfield without a recognized striker and a starting lineup containing only six league goals this season, Liverpool largely dominated its biggest rival but only created half-chances — the two best falling to midfielder Emre Can. United goalkeeper David de Gea kept out both shots, again demonstrating his importance and Liverpool’s need for a top-quality striker to finish off good build-up play.
Goalkeepers were on top at Britannia Stadium, too, with Stoke’s Jack Butland and Arsenal’s Petr Cech getting most of the plaudits after a tight, tense game.
Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud had early chances in each half but Butland reacted well to stop an angled shot and then a powerful header.
Though chasing possession for much of the second half, Stoke could have taken all three points if not for a superb double save by Petr Cech midway through the second half. Aaron Ramsey also cleared a shot from near the goal-line as Stoke mounted late pressure.
Arsenal, missing injured playmaker Mesut Ozil, failed to capitalize on Leicester’s 1-1 draw at Aston Villa on Saturday, and dropped four points this week after also drawing at Liverpool on Wednesday. However, a draw at Stoke was welcome to Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, whose team hasn’t won at the Britannia since 2010.
“We needed to be strong physically and had a great spirit,” Wenger said. “We fought very hard but couldn’t take our chances. It is a hard-fought 0-0. We have done better than years before at this ground and showed we can fight even when we miss certain players.”