The air was thicker than it is in England, and the temperature a bit warmer, but otherwise, longtime Premier League rivals Manchester United and Liverpool surely felt at home at Sun Life Stadium on Monday night for the final of the Guinness International Champions Cup, an eight-team exhibition tournament that crisscrossed the United States and culminated in Miami.
The sky was gray and the field was damp following afternoon rain showers. A prematch fireworks show left the players in a dense England-like fog for the first several minutes of the game. And the majority of the 51,014 fans were wearing red, serenading their heroes with chants such as “Glory, Glory Man United!” and “Liiiiiiiverpoooool! Liiiiiiiiverpoooool!” like they do at Old Trafford and Anfield.
Manchester United fans, who just suffered through the club’s worst season in two decades, were elated after the Red Devils beat the Reds 3-1 with three second-half goals by captain Wayne Rooney, Spaniard Juan Mata and 21-year-old Jesse Lingard.
The ICC trophy is just a preseason prize with no bearing on the Premier League or Champions League standings, but it was a significant piece of hardware for Man United. The team that was demoralized with a seventh-place finish in the English Premier League last season has a 4-0 summer record under new manager Louis Van Gaal and renewed confidence heading into the 2014-15 season.
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“Nothing, but it is nice for the fans in the United States and back home that we beat Liverpool, the main opponent for our fans,” van Gaal said on what it means to win the ICC. “It is better to win a preparation game than to lose, but the most important is to win our first game of the Premier League season against Swansea City.”
Captain Wayne Rooney scored the first goal for Manchester United in the 55th minute, tying the match at 1. Mexican star Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, starting his first game this tournament, launched a beautiful ball into the box, and Rooney side-footed it with his left foot past Liverpool’s Belgian goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.
Red Devils fans were still celebrating Rooney’s goal when Mata put in the second goal off a cross from Luke Shaw in the 57th minute. Lingard, a second-half sub, iced the game in the 88th minute. He gathered the ball, one-touched it and drove it past Mignolet from just outside the box.
Liverpool took a first-half lead in the 14th minute with a penalty kick by captain and England national team star Steven Gerrard. Manchester United defender Phil Jones fouled Raheem Sterling in the box, setting up the penalty.
Fans who were not wearing the shirts of the Red Devils and Reds wore everything from the national team jerseys of Germany, Brazil, Argentina, the United States and Colombia, to replica jerseys of Lionel Messi, Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham.
The 13-city tournament was a chance for American soccer fans to see the EPL heroes they watch every weekend morning on TV. It was also a chance for the clubs to expand their brand, sell merchandise and get in some quality preseason competition.
Between the two squads in Monday’s match, there were 20 players who participated in the recent World Cup in Brazil — 12 for England and eight from other countries, including Spaniards David De Gea and Mata, Mexico’s “Chicharito,” Portugal’s Nani, Belgium’s Mignolet, France’s Mamadou Sakho, Japan’s Shinji Kagawa and Ecuador captain Antonio Valencia, who started the game but left early with an undisclosed injury.
Mata said the team is trying to adapt to van Gaal’s system, and the U.S. tour has been a success.
“It’s been a great tour and I think we’ve played very well,” he said. “We’re still trying to adapt to the new system, the new way of playing that the manager has brought with him. I know it’s a friendly [tournament], but it’s important to get off to a good start before the season.”
Playing against Liverpool made it particularly special, Mata said.
“It’s a massive rivalry,” he said of the teams, who were founded in the late 1800s. “Even when I was playing in Spain I knew all about this rivalry. It’s the biggest in England, and the rivalry has been there for a long time.’’
He had already played at Sun Life Stadium with the Spanish national team, called it a “great’’ venue.
“In every game we’ve played so far in this tournament I’ve been amazed by the stadiums and the support,” Mata said.
Among the fans were Liverpool fanatics Sean and Debbie Dunn of North Port, near Sarasota. Sean, who was wearing a red-and-white wig, became a Reds fan while stationed with the U.S. Army in Kabul, Afghanistan, from 2009 to 2011. He made British friends there, and would leave the base and join them to watch matches on Sky TV every weekend.
When he returned home, he sold his wife on soccer and Liverpool. Last year they traveled to England to watch Liverpool play Everton in the Merseyside Derby, and he plans to go again this fall.
“I fell in love with Liverpool after watching them play live,’’ said Debbie Dunn, a nurse. “I was a college football fan before, but now, I am a huge Liverpool fan. I love their values, and their leaders like Gerrard. This is a huge thrill for us to see them in person.”