It was worth the wait. The biggest fixture in English football has a tendency to disappoint but, 11 days after it was originally scheduled to be played, this rearranged kick-off was the best meeting between Manchester United and Liverpool in years, low on quality but on entertainment once both sets of players were finally inside the building.
Outside, the United fans’ protests against the Glazer family’s ownership persisted and, though they did not prevent the game from taking place this time, the supporters continued to make their voices heard. There may be more yet before the end of the season, their significance building with every demonstration.
Yet this was also a significant night for Liverpool. Not only was their 4-2 victory Jurgen Klopp’s first at Old Trafford but one which makes a late run to qualify for next season’s Champions League more than possible. Win their game in hand against relegated West Bromwich Albion this weekend and they will believe that a top-four finish can still be salvaged from this wreck of a season.
A Roberto Firmino double sandwiched between goals by Diogo Jota and Mohamed Salah, all on top of a quite brilliant performance by Trent Alexander-Arnold, made that possible as Liverpool recovered going behind to Bruno Fernandes. Marcus Rashford briefly threatened to make this a contest but United were undone by harebrained defending and missed the guiding influence of injured Harry Maguire.
This was a second consecutive home defeat for United after Leicester’s victory here on Tuesday night and perhaps their congested schedule of four games in eight days played a part in their performance, but even if they have little left to play for domestically this season, this was a bad night for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side. Then again, some at Old Trafford will merely be pleased that the game went ahead.
While hundreds once again gathered at the forecourt on Sir Matt Busby Way, a group of around 30 supporters on the other side of the city attempted to stop the match from going ahead. United’s players had travelled to Old Trafford early to avoid being shut in once more but Liverpool’s travelling party stayed at the Hyatt Regency until the early evening, with a coach waiting outside.
Around three hours before kick-off, word spread of another bus - red and Liverpool branded - parked on Kincardine Road, half a mile away from the hotel. United fans used their cars to block that bus in, with some even attempting to let down its tyres, but police vans soon arrived to disperse them and their vehicles, allowing the bus to leave.
The assumption among the fans was that this bright red bus had been a decoy. It was not, in fact, and the plan was for it to pick the Liverpool squad up from the Hyatt. The visiting players and staff instead arrived in two inconspicuous blacked out and non-branded coaches, using a back entrance that the hundreds of fans at the ground had not covered.
And so there was, eventually, a football match. Liverpool started it slowly. Despite being forced to field the inexperienced pair of Nathaniel Phillips and Rhys Williams as their centre-half partnership, it was Alisson who almost cost them an early goal, but Edinson Cavani could not turn quickly enough to send the goalkeeper’s loose pass into an empty net.
Yet that wake-up call went unheeded and Liverpool were still half asleep when Fernandes was allowed to pick up the ball unguarded inside their box. Fabinho’s misstep allowed the United playmaker the time to aim for the far corner with the outside of his boot. That unorthodox technique did for Phillips, who attempted to block the shot but instead diverted it in with his knee.
Despite looking very much like the 1,000th own goal in Premier League history, it went down as Fernandes’ 18th of the season, three behind Harry Kane in the Golden Boot race. The way Liverpool’s defence had started, he may have felt he could rise to the top of the ranks by the end of the night, but going behind appeared to help Klopp’s visitors, and Phillips began to become influential at the other end of the pitch.
First, Liverpool’s fifth-choice centre-half won a penalty at the other end of the pitch by being on the end of a particularly forceful Eric Bailly challenge, but it was correctly overturned by referee Anthony Taylor after consulting the pitchside monitor. Phillips would not be deterred and, after United failed to contend with a corner, carried the ball away from goal then turned and shot. Dean Henderson thought he had it covered until Jota’s deft backheel flick took it out of his reach.
An equaliser was no less than United’s limp response to going ahead deserved and ‘limp’ is the only word to describe their attempts to defend Liverpool’s second of the evening. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s free-kick on the cusp on half time was a devilish delivery but Paul Pogba still came up short while attempting to track Firmino’s run, falling over as the Brazilian nodded a free header in at the far post.
It was a similar story at the start of the second half. United survived one lamentable attempt to play out from the back but having rescued his team-mates, Luke Shaw dribbled up through the middle of the pitch and ran right into trouble. A quick turnover of possession by Jota released Alexander-Arnold. Henderson spilled the resulting shot, putting the ball on a plate for Firmino.
United continued to fall apart as Liverpool kept coming for more. Fred was having an especially horrendous evening. A misplaced pass which started a Liverpool move that ended in Jota hitting the post was his last meaningful contribution. Solskjaer sought for Mason Greenwood off the substitutes’ bench. Perhaps he had seen that Liverpool’s defence was clearly still vulnerable and would struggle against a four-man attack.
Rashford duly made things interesting. As Phillips and Williams attempted to manage Cavani’s movement, they allowed Rashford to slip through one-on-one and sneak a finish around Allison. It was a devastatingly simple goal and switched the game’s momentum entirely. Greenwood soon had a shot brilliantly cleared off the line by Phillips, with Williams blocking the follow-up.
That brief spell of pressure aside though, United did not deserve to take anything from the game. Their attempts to break forward were scatterbrained at best and eventually punished in the last of the 90 minutes, with Salah breaking into the acres of unmanned space, closing in on Henderson and finishing to make sure of all three points. Liverpool’s first win on this ground in seven years may be the highlight of the season. It may be their saving grace.
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