After all the epic battles between these sides, the latest meeting felt like a reminder about what can sometimes happen when two old rivals lock horns and refuse to budge.
The game was certainly not lacking competitive courage but, as a spectacle, it still fell short bar the one moment when David de Gea showed his ability to pull off almost implausible saves and, as the Kop let out a howl of anguish, Jürgen Klopp could be seen applauding on the touchline.
Liverpool’s manager might also have been showing his appreciation for the expertise in Philippe Coutinho’s shot before De Gea, at full length, spared his team with one of the outstanding saves the Premier League will see all season. Shortly afterwards, Antonio Valencia produced a brilliantly executed saving tackle to deny Roberto Firmino a clear run at goal and Liverpool, with their second-half momentum building, were stopped again.
These, however, were extraordinary moments in an otherwise ordinary contest and, for all the colour and din, the occasion was a disappointment for the most part. José Mourinho will be disappointed his Manchester United players could not build on an encouraging start while Klopp must be frustrated that when Liverpool finally realised they were supposed to be the home team they could not make the most of their pressure.
After all the pre-match hype, including a 12-hour build-up on one Norwegian television channel, the truth is the match took a long time to ignite. This was not one of those occasions when Mourinho could face allegations of undue negativity with his formation. His team did, however, play with the structure and organisational qualities that are automatically associated with their manager when it comes to the category-A fixtures. This was a tough, obdurate performance and Liverpool struggled at times to play with their recent fluency that has been evident in many of their matches.
The early pressure that might have been anticipated from the home side never really materialised and there was audible frustration at one point in the first half when Emre Can went for a sideways pass rather than trying to move the ball forwards. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was a difficult opponent, playing as though he recognised the importance of the fixture, and Mourinho had identified James Milner might be vulnerable against the speed and directness of Marcus Rashford.
Milner has had a splendid start to the season but he was less inclined to advance from his left-back position when there was the risk it might leave Rashford free on the counter-attack. Mourinho’s system also had Paul Pogba operating in a slightly more advanced role than usual and it quickly became apparent Liverpool were not going to have the freedom to dictate the tempo as they had in their previous Anfield fixtures this season.
After a slow beginning, Liverpool did finish the first half encouragingly but even then they were able to get behind a United defence in which Chris Smalling and particularly Eric Bailly gave little away. Coutinho kept probing away, always wanting the ball and looking for the incisive pass. Firmino was also prominently involved but Klopp must have been disappointed at half-time by the lack of danger in and around United’s penalty area. Firmino might have done better with his header from Jordan Henderson’s cross but that was the only occasion in that period when De Gea was seriously threatened. Daniel Sturridge was on the edges for long spells and it was unusual to see Sadio Mané making such little impact.
United had made a promising start, with Rashford seeing plenty of the ball and Ibrahimovic willing to make it a physical battle with the Liverpool centre-halves. Ander Herrera was busy and effective alongside Marouane Fellaini in midfield but there were times, in keeping with their hosts, when the away side needed a touch more refinement. Everything can feel very rushed in these fixtures but sometimes it is not such a bad thing to have a player who can create the time and space to put his foot on the ball.
Three minutes into the second half, Dejan Lovren rolled a routine pass back to Loris Karius and Liverpool’s goalkeeper played the ball straight to Pogba just outside the penalty area. Karius, and Liverpool might have been relieved that Ibrahimovic was offside when Pogba turned the ball across the penalty area. Yet Ibrahimovic missed anyway and that error-strewn passage of play felt like a measure of how the game had gone until that point – lots of blood and thunder, but also plenty of thud and blunder. The more damaging miss came from Ibrahimovic six minutes later when Pogba eluded Henderson before crossing to the far post. Ibrahimovic had an awkward angle to negotiate but a striker with his reputation still ought to have done better with his headed chance.
Finally, the game was getting some goalmouth action. Soon afterwards, Joel Matip strolled elegantly forward from his position in defence and played the first pass of the night to open up the United defence. It took an age before Can, surrounded by opponents, took aim and De Gea’s one-handed, low save to his right, was a reminder of the goalkeeper’s brilliance.
Another came in the 71st minute and this was the moment De Gea’s agility left Coutinho holding his face in disbelief and Klopp clapping above his head. Coutinho’s shot had been heading for the top corner but De Gea saved his team on a night when the referee Anthony Taylor, after all the pre-match scrutiny, can reflect he put in a reasonable though certainly not immaculate performance. The same could be said of both sides.
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