When the fixtures are published at the beginning of the season there are certain games you look for first. For Liverpool fans that includes those against Manchester United and Everton. Today was a day some of us will have been dreading since June, while others will probably have been looking forward to it most – Manchester United at Old Trafford. Our record at the home ground of our perennial rivals (we have just five wins there in the Premier League era) probably justifies the pessimism of most, while the manner of those rare wins is enough to excite anyone. There was no doubt about it, this was probably the biggest one.
With that in mind Jurgen Klopp reintroduced some players back into the team whom he had rested for the game against Porto at Anfield on Tuesday night. Virgil Van Dijk, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson all came back into the side, as did Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Mohamed Salah. Manchester United though had to deal with one big injury. Paul Pogba was ruled out prior to kick-off for what was only described as a leg injury. Juan Mata was brought into the side in his place. Marcus Rashford, who changed the game for the home side at Selhurst Park on Monday night, started on the left wing, while Eric Bailly came back into Jose Mourinho’s starting XI taking the place of the injured Phil Jones.
With so much at stake this was always going to be a nervy game to begin with. Many expected Mourinho to set his side up to frustrate Liverpool, although the early exchanges suggested that may not be the case exactly. United looked quick going forward and predictably well set up at the back. They were quicker out of the blocks in this game, that cannot be questioned, and they got their reward on fourteen minutes. A long ball forward from David De Gea was flicked on by Romelu Lukaku, who had managed to hold off the attentions of Dejan Lovren. Rashford got onto the loose ball before Alexander-Arnold could and raced away. As he closed in on Loris Karius’ goal, he cut back onto his right foot before beautifully curling a shot beyond the German ‘keeper. Alexander-Arnold could have done better to stop Rashford, and the Liverpool defence as a collective should have given the young right back more protection against the pace and quality of the prodigious Manc teenager. But take nothing away from Rashford – it was a finish of the highest quality.
Despite being behind these were still the early stages of the game and Liverpool still had plenty of time to come back into the game. United were forcing the issue more than many thought they would, but Liverpool would have a gilt-edged chance to equalise. James Milner took a corner from the right which he arrowed in towards the near post. Virgil Van Dijk would make a habit al afternoon of escaping the attentions of his marker from corners and would set a precedent for that here. He managed to shrug off Chris Smalling and make a run towards goal. He managed to flick the ball onto his shoulder from five yards out but was too square to goal and could only direct his head/shoulder attempt wide. It was a massive opportunity for Liverpool to draw level. We would be made to pay on twenty-four minutes.
Lukaku again managed to fight off Lovren forty yards from goal before turning and running at what remained of the Liverpool backline. As he got within thirty yards of goal he slid it into a gap between Alexander-Arnold, who had come narrow to cover Lovren, and Van Dijk. Mata ran onto the through ball, but Van Dijk was on his touch to dispossess him. He couldn’t control the ball though and it fell to Rashford, who took full advantage of the space afforded to him by Alexander-Arnold to steer the ball past Karius again. It was shambolic defending again that had led to United doubling their lead. Liverpool were now in danger of sinking without a trace.
As the half wore on it become more and more clear that Liverpool heads had well and truly fell off. We were shell-shocked by two early goals that were avoidable, but we couldn’t put the errors behind us. United came forward and seemed to over-power us when they did. We had some possession in the opposition half but failed to make it count for much. There were some nice through balls from Oxlade-Chamberlain and Firmino that didn’t find their targets, but it was United who would have the best chance of the final twenty minutes. Juan Mata ghosted into the area and Rashford found him superbly, unmarked in the centre of the area with what seemed like hours of time. Mata took the shot first time and attempted a spectacular overhead kick which he diverted wide. It was a huge let off for Liverpool and we were lucky to go in only two behind at half-time.
The half-time whistle would have been welcomed by Jurgen Klopp. Our gameplan wasn’t completely clear and we had failed to get Mohamed Salah anywhere near the ball or his team-mates. Our potent front three had hardly seen each other in the first half and, if we were to get anything from this game, that needed to change. Jose Mourinho will have been delighted with his team’s first half display. They had scored two good goals and were deservedly ahead, while completely neutering us in attack. It couldn’t have gone much better for the United boss.
In the second half Liverpool seemed to have a much better idea with regards to how to go about attacking this stubborn Manchester United defence. Sadio Mane was now getting on the ball and driving at the heart of their backline much more, while Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah were doing a much better job of switching positions. Emre Can was also driving forward to support attacks, but it was Mane who was leading the charge and looking to make something happen most. On a massive pitch like Old Trafford it was always going to be difficult for a narrow team like Liverpool to create much against this miser-like defence and we were mostly restricted to long shots. On sixty-six minutes though we were given some hope.
Mane again had the ball on the left side but decided not to come inside on this occasion. Instead he went on the outside of Antonio Valencia and fired a ball across goal. It looked a simple clearance for Eric Bailly to make but he somehow managed to get his feet all wrong. The ball hit the back of his feel and sneaked in at De Gea’s near post. It was clumsy to say the least from Bailly, who is only just returning from a substantial injury, and the goalkeeping also left a lot to be desired from De Gea. That was none of our concern though. Were back in the game.
United haven’t lost at home all season and have never been defeated from being 2-0 up, but Liverpool had troubled United’s turgid defence a couple of times this afternoon and if anyone could break those records it was us. Jurgen Klopp responded to his sides resurgence with attacking changes. Georginio Wijnaldum came on for Trent Alexander-Arnold, but not before Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was replaced by Adam Lallana. Liverpool now had energy and guile in the middle of the park. Could Manchester United hold on?
They were beginning to struggle, and Liverpool had huge shouts for penalties either side of Bailly’s own goal. First Robertson’s cross from the left hit Valencia’s hand but referee Craig Pawson waved away protests. Then, not long after coming on, Marouane Fellaini barged into the back of Sadio Mane as he ran through on goal. It seemed a stonewall penalty but, again, Craig Pawson was having none of it. These and a couple of other decisions from the referee were making it look like he didn’t have the bottle to give big decisions.
Time was running out for Liverpool and it was clear that we would have to make our own luck (or get assaulted with deadly weapons) to get anything out of this game. We pushed forward looking for the equaliser. Wijnaldum was first to step up but his long drive was deflected inches wide of De Gea’s goal. Then, in the final minute of stoppage time, a corner swung in from the left. It spun off De Gea’s fist and into the air. It dropped onto Mohamed Salah’s left foot and, as the Egyptian swung at it, you knew exactly what was going to happen – and so it came to be as he blazed his volley over the bar.
United fans rejoiced, likely in relief, when the final whistle went, as Liverpool fans continued to sing for the next hour after the end of the game. It was of course a huge result for them, one which moves them five points clear of ourselves in the monotonous race for second place in The Premier League. We are still in third place but are now only four points clear of Chelsea, who lie in fifth place, following their 2-1 win over Crystal Palace later in the day.
This was never going to be an easy game, and many would’ve taken a point if offered to them prior to kick-off. The way the goals were scored were unacceptable and more questions will be asked of this defence, especially Dejan Lovren. However, the reaction from Liverpool in the second half, to screw our heads back on during the break and take the game to United, was everything we could have wanted. We deserved more than we got out of the game – especially when one considers the blatant penalties we should have had – but it wasn’t to be. The old saying rings true, that you can’t win them all.