MANCHESTER, England — Manchester United heaped more misery on Liverpool by beating its great rival 3-0 in the Premier League on Sunday, earning a sixth straight win to underline the transformation in fortunes of England's two biggest clubs.
Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata — from an offside position — scored to give United a 2-0 lead at halftime and Robin van Persie added the third in the 71st minute at Old Trafford.
While third-place United remained eight points behind leader Chelsea to maintain its unlikely title challenge, Liverpool is mid-table and struggling to recreate the form that took the team to a runner-up finish last season.
The score was harsh on Liverpool, with United goalkeeper David de Gea producing a string of brilliant saves to deny Raheem Sterling and substitute Mario Balotelli.
The visitors were also unlucky that Mata was not signaled offside when he headed home to make it 2-0 in the 40th, puncturing Liverpool's bright start.
"They were much more clinical when they needed to be," Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers said. "For their goalkeeper to get man of the match tells you everything."
But these are worrying times for Rodgers. He is lacking a clinical finisher in the absence of the injured Daniel Sturridge, his defense is in a mess and he has doubts about his first-choice goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, who was dropped here for Brad Jones. It ended a miserable week for Liverpool, which was eliminated from the Champions League on Tuesday.
Without hitting anywhere near top form, United is perhaps making the title race a three-team fight. Louis van Gaal's side has no European or English League Cup commitments to clog up its schedule this season.
Having spent around $250 million bolstering its squad in the last offseason, a title challenge is probably the least United's fans and owners expect — although none of the summer signings even started against Liverpool. Van Gaal is getting results with the players he inherited from David Moyes, and with a dose of fortune.
"Winning now six matches in a row is fantastic but we have to improve our playing style," said Van Gaal, who played Rooney in center midfield. "And I am saying that nearly every week."
Six days after scraping a 2-1 win at Southampton, United took the lead in the 12th — just 25 seconds after Sterling, playing as a lone forward, was denied by De Gea in a one-on-one chance. United counter-attacked, Antonio Valencia played the ball between Joe Allen's legs on the right wing and crossed for Rooney to apply a side-footed finish inside the near post.
Liverpool was crisper with its passing and had more possession, but squandered a number of openings before Mata doubled the lead.
Again, it was good delivery from the flanks, with Ashley Young whipping in a cross from the left that was flicked on by Van Persie for Mata to stoop and head in from close range at the far post.
"You need luck, but you can force the luck," Van Gaal said. "We are forcing the luck and that was not the case at the start of the season."
Sterling was presented with another great chance at the start of the second half after pouncing on Jonny Evans' weak back-pass. The England international darted to the left of De Gea, who made up the ground to block Sterling's tame left-footed shot.
De Gea then tipped Balotelli's shot onto the bar in his best intervention before Van Persie made it 3-0. Dejan Lovren miscued his clearance from Rooney's cross and the ball went straight to Mata, who passed to his right for Van Persie to slot home.
There was still time for De Gea to deny Balotelli again and ensure United reversed the 3-0 score from the corresponding fixture last season in March.
"We had enough chances to get something and it epitomized what our season has been," Rodgers said. "We have nowhere near enough goals in the team."