And so it came – Manchester United away. The big one. The game for points, table placement, and plenty besides. The one we were waiting for.
There is always a lot at stake when Liverpool play at Old Trafford. Plenty of memories too, happy and sad. It’s very hard to find the proper word to describe this rivalry. But let’s get practical.
For the Reds, it was the best opportunity possible to jump ahead of United in the table, as the devils had a two-point advantage beforehand. For them of course, it was the perfect opportunity to increase that difference to five.
With all players except Nathaniel Clyne available for selection, Jurgen Klopp had a few options to choose from regarding the starting XI, and this was the chosen one:
On the other hand, Jose Mourinho had a few problems. He was bereft of the services of Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial. Marouane Fellaini and Eric Bailly had recovered in time, so this was the team he thought best to try and tackle Klopp’s:
The First Half
As soon as the game kicked off, both teams started showing a bit of nerves. For a minute or so, every player on the pitch seemed happy with just hoofing the ball in the direction of the opponent’s goal uncontrollably. But then Liverpool started bringing it down, holding possession and trying to organize their game. Klopp’s men were arranged in a classic 4-3-3 fomation, while Mourinho set his men in a sightly tougher but less fluid 4-2-3-1, with Mc Tominay and Matić sitting deep and providing cover for the back four, and Sanchez through the middle, Rashford on the left and Mata on the right supported Lukaku in attack.
United pressed surprisingly high, there was no sign of a parked bus anywhere, and that seemed to be taking the Reds (in white shirts in this game) by surprise. Their nerves didn’t abate, and the play got a bit sloppy in terms of passing. The home team defended well all over the pitch. Runs were being tracked, spaces were being closed, passes intercepted or simply misplaced by Liverpool players. It became clear quickly that this would not be a walk in the park.
In attack, United were mostly probing with long passes, and after 11 minutes one such diagonal ball by Nemanja Matić found Romelu Lukaku on the right, but Andy Robertson defended well. Two minutes later, a misunderstanding between David De Gea and Chris Smalling ended with a corner for Liverpool. Mohamed Salah took it from the right side, but his cross missed everybody and went out of bounds.
De Gea took the goal-kick long, deep into Liverpool’s half. Lukaku got in front of Dejan Lovren, won the header and flicked it on in behind for Marcus Rashford on the left. Trent Alexander-Arnold was caught on his heels, Rashford got away from him, and when Alexander-Arnold threw all his pace at recovering, Rashford simply cut inside, took him out again while shifting the ball to his right foot, and slammed it into the far side-netting. There was nothing Loris Karius could do.
Three minutes later Liverpool almost struck back. Sadio Mane got past Matić and Juan Mata in the middle and was fouled by Eric Bailly some 35 yards out. James Milner sent it to the left wing where it was picked up by Roberto Firmino. Firmino then swung it in towards the far post, but Mane couldn’t reach high enough at close range.
With 18 minutes gone, a dangerous combination between Mata and Rashford was dealt with by Lovren. Then Mane sent Firmino running with a through pass but Antonio Valencia defended well.
And then, with 24 minutes gone, a moment similar to the one before the opening goal – De Gea hoofs it from the back, Lukaku drops deep, drags Lovren out and beats him. This time he involved Mata, but van Dijk closed him down and took it off his foot. Nevertheless, as fate would have it, it fell straight to Rashford again. Karius had been coming towards Mata a split-second earlier and was now back tracking, which made it easy for him to get caught on the wrong foot by Rashford’s shot.
At this point, it became quite clear that Mourinho’s ideas in attack included Sanchez occasionally moving further up alongside Lukaku and occupying the attention of van Dijk, leaving Lovren to deal with the Belgian alone, and Rashford then trying to exploit the space behind Lovren’s back.
One thing that can be said for Klopp’s men, they never looked like giving up. If anything, they rallied well and tried to hit back on numerous occasions. Just two minutes after the second goal, Mane forced Ashley Young into a mistake and crossed, but Bailly took it out for a corner.
As Liverpool pushed United back, the devils defended with renewed will and one reckless moment from the double scorer Rashford, a late tackle on Milner, earned him a booking.
Firmino wasn’t having a very good game. He took a couple of shots with much better options available, the first one happening in the 29th minute. It was strong, but aimed to the centre of the goal and low, easily saved by De Gea. Such moments only increased the frustration of the predicament the team was now in – chasing a two-goal lead at Old Trafford, against a Jose Mourinho team.
With half an hour gone, Mata combined well with Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez, but with no end-product. Then Firmino took another wasteful shot which only helped De Gea boost his stats and morale.
Liverpool were looking rattled at this point. The passing was poor, the ball was given away under no pressure too many times, with Bailly and Matić doing particularly well to close down the channels and pockets of space that the Reds were looking to create. The moment that perfectly reflected the situation was when Oxlade-Chamberlain lost the ball to young Scott McTominay in the middle of the pitch in the 35th minute and then committed a deliberate foul to prevent a counterattack, earning a yellow card in the process.
Two minutes later, a piece of luck saved the game from being over then and there. Valencia sent a long diagonal pass to Sanchez on the left. The Chilean did well to control it and swung in a cross towards Mata, who somehow escaped the attention of the whole Liverpool defence and, completely unchallenged by anyone, tried an overhead kick from just outside six yards and missed the goal by what looked like less than a yard.
Liverpool finally threatened two minutes before halftime. Mane took the ball in United’s half and sent Robertson running down the left flank. Roberson squared the ball across the six-yard line but Young cut in front of Salah and cleared.
The Second Half
Three minutes after the break, a corner by Salah was headed just over the bar by van Dijk. It was close, but luck just wasn’t a friend of the Dutchman in this game.
A minute later, Firmino chipped the ball nicely over United’s back line for Salah, and Salah was clearly fouled by Young inside the box which enabled Smalling and Bailly to recover and deal with the danger. Salah chose to stay on his feet and referee Craig Pawson remained silent. Had he gone down… who knows. Nevertheless, it was good to see the brilliance of Firmino at work again, if only for a second.
Then a low shot from range by Oxlade-Chamberlain trickled wide. It was a good response at the start of the second period.
In the 53rd minute, Mane led a promising counterattack but Salah was the only one who could keep up with his pace. Mane tried to thread it to him but the needle-head was too narrow.
A minute later, another controversy and another penalty not given. Robertson’s cross from the left was blocked by Valencia, whose hand had been trailing behind him in what looked like a clear deliberate attempt to block the pass of the ball. Just to show he had strong faith in his decisions, in the next few minutes Pawson gave every contact as a free-kick to Manchester United.
But in all fairness, it has to be said that Liverpool’s play wasn’t good enough to warrant a goal back, dominant though they were. Apart from that Firmino chip, that quality final pass we’ve seen so many times recently always seemed to be missing in this game. Therefore with 62 minutes gone, Klopp took out Oxlade-Chamberlain and brought on Adam Lallana.
Two minutes later, the England attacking midfielder was grabbed with both arms from behind by Smalling and brought down. Nothing was given again and the attack ended with Milner’s shot from 25 yards that went comfortably over the bar.
And then, just as the situation started looking completely hopeless, in the 66th minute Mane beat McTominay on the left wing and sent in a cross to the near post. Bailly tried to deal with it but caught it awkwardly and beat his own goalkeeper with a clumsy deflection to the near post.
Immediately afterwards, the United defender went down complaining of an injury, but he was able to continue after some medical assistance.
For all the lack of proper quality in Liverpool’s attacks , they were still pushing the hosts back and with their relentless pressing they completely stopped them from moving forward. Lallana’s presence in the middle of the pitch had obviously caused some problems, so Mourinho rightly sensed he had to act. In a typical Mourinho move, in the 69th minute the United manager took out Rashford and sent on Marouane Fellaini.
The addition of Fellaini’s strength in midfield immediately gave results. Given that he had replaced an attacking player with a favorable result on the scoreboard, Fellaini was free to roam, popping up and lending a hand wherever needed. He helped United a lot in holding the ball up and slowing down the game. Liverpool’s attacks became even less dangerous.
In the 73rd minute, United sprang a counterattack. Valencia burst forward through the middle, Lukaku ran to the right and received the ball, but he held it for too long which made the fullback lose the moment’s advantage, and when Lukaku finally passed it back to him, he was caught and blocked.
Ten minutes from time, Lovren committed a foul on Fellaini who had popped up on the left wing this time. Klopp was furious and at a signal from fourth official Martin Atkinson, Pawson warned the Liverpool manager to behave.
Trying to add some more creativity, Klopp then sent in Georginio Wijnaldum for Alexander-Arnold. It was hard to tell what happened to the back part of Liverpool’s formation at this point because United had pulled all their forces back to defend the lead, and the Reds only attacked for the rest of the contest.
A minute later, from just outside the box Mane gave the ball to Firmino who was standing near the penalty spot. Mane obviously wasn’t going for a one-two, and it didn’t make sense to because Firmino had just enough space to try and go around his marker, but the Brazilian didn’t see it that way. Instead, he went for a little back-heel lay-off for Mane, whom he had obviously expected to make run that way, but Mane realized it too late. Fellaini was there to get the ball before him.
With six minutes remaining, Klopp threw his last card on the table. Dominic Solanke came on for Robertson.
A minute later, United had a chance to put the game to bed completely. Young swung in a cross from a free-kick, Lovren cleared the box, Sanchez picked it up and sent it in again, and Mata was a tad too late.
With 88 minutes gone, Mourinho replaced the Spaniard with Jesse Lingard.
Then Valencia picked up a booking as he stopped Mane with a high tackle.
There were six minutes of added time, during which only Liverpool attacked, but to no avail. Deflected shots from Wijnaldum and Lovren, several corners when even Karius asked for permission to go forward but was denied, Salah failing to connect with the ball properly to score… And nothing. Game over.
There is of course plenty of time, eight games remaining can be quite enough to catch up with a five-point advantage, but a defeat to Manchester United is always a painful experience.
We walk on. There’s nothing for it.