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 football'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 stayed 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 off 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.
"It's a derby and you only have one job to do: To win it," Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp said. "I think Man United, if they talk about this performance, they will say it's not that good but they won. I feel really frustrated. A lot of the things we did were good but our finishing wasn't good."
Rooney appears back to something close to his best form after a disappointing first half of the season. He was even dropped for the Dec. 26 match against Stoke, but was recalled for the next match — against Chelsea at home two days later — and has scored in every game since then.
"A striker who scores is always very important," Van Gaal said. "And now he is scoring in a row and we are winning in a row. I am very happy for him."
Rooney was isolated for much of this game, feeding off scraps, but took his chance well with a true strike after Fellaini rattled the crossbar with a header following a short corner.
"Scoring a winning goal at Anfield, it'sÂ been aÂ long time since that happened for me," said Rooney, who last achieved that feat in 2005,Â "so IÂ will be a bit selfish today and enjoy that one."
Many global football fans mark this fixture as one of the games of the Premier League season — the rivals have 38 league titles between them — but the two powers have struggled this campaign.
United and Liverpool kicked off lying in sixth and ninth place in the standings, respectively, and the first half showed just why. There was plenty of energy and snappy tackles but little quality, especially from United.
The teams were involved in thrilling 3-3 draws in midweek. They went from feast to famine a few days later.
Liverpool carved out some openings, for lone striker Roberto Firmino, Jordan Henderson and James Milner, but De Gea wasn't tested once and the shots were from long range. At the other end, opposite goalkeeper Simon Mignolet was little more than a bystander.
"I admit, we survived the first half," Van Gaal said.
De Gea stepped up for United in the second half, though. He saved with his feet a low shot from Can, who then brought a superb diving save out of the Spain international with a fierce drive.
In between those chances, Anthony Martial finally got in behind Liverpool's defense and flashed a left-foot shot just past the far post — United's first genuine effort.
It meant Rooney's goal came against the run of play for United, which maybe made it even sweeter for the celebrating visiting fans, including injured United players Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and Michael Carrick.