Maybe it was appropriate that José Mourinho and his players stayed at a hotel named after the Titanic. Fill in your own jokes here. Or consider, perhaps, the gloating cries of “Don’t sack Mourinho”, heavy on irony, from Liverpool’s supporters on the day Jürgen Klopp’s team seized back control of a title race where their arch-rivals are barely even an afterthought.
For all the historic rivalry of this fixture it is the other team from along the East Lancs Road that should be uppermost in Liverpool’s thoughts now. Liverpool versus Manchester City is what matters. And United? They are just a memory. Mourinho’s team have conceded more goals in mid-December than they did throughout the whole of last season. They are 19 points off the top and one statistic in particular stood out: 36 shots for Liverpool, their most in any league fixture for two years. It could be years before United are title challengers again and, for a club with their ambitions, who could be surprised if the manager pays the price with his job? At any of his previous clubs it would probably have happened already.
One certainty: Liverpool will enjoy rubbernecking in United’s direction. The league leaders were fortunate in one respect, that Xherdan Shaqiri’s second-half goals both took deflections before beating David de Gea in United’s goal.
Overall, however, who could say they were lucky given the balance of play, the long spells when they pinned their opponents back and the clear suspicion that, but for a dreadful mistake from Alisson, Liverpool’s goalkeeper, it would have been an even more straightforward victory?
Liverpool were winning 1-0, courtesy of Sadio Mané, before Alisson’s faux pas allowed Jesse Lingard to steal in for an equaliser that changed the complexion of the game. At 1-1 there was a considerable period when Liverpool looked unusually short of ideas. But it was an adventurous move from Klopp to replace Naby Keïta with Shaqiri in the 70th minute. The substitute scored twice within 10 minutes and Mourinho had to spend the remainder of the game listening to the crowd’s schadenfreude, with Ed Woodward, Sir Bobby Charlton and Sir Alex Ferguson watching on from the stands. It is the worst points total for United at this stage of a season for 26 years – worse than anything that happened under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal.
If one is going to be generous, the issue was not whether Mourinho’s players were trying their hardest. The problem boiled down to something else: an imbalance of talent. Pep Guardiola made this point when City visited Anfield earlier in the season: Liverpool can swamp opponents when the game is this frenetic. And, for United, it was a dizzying blur at times, particularly in those frantic early exchanges when there was barely time to analyse some of the incidents. The saves from De Gea, the penalty-box pinball, the goal-line clearance from Ashley Young, the shots that flew left, right and high of the United goal.
After 19 minutes there had been 10 scoring attempts, nine for Liverpool. De Gea could be seen pleading with his team-mates to calm down. But the visiting players were rushing their passes, falling into the trap, making it the game Liverpool wanted it to be and, five minutes later, the pass Fabinho clipped into the penalty area was weighted beautifully to find Mané. Young had let him go and Mané took his goal with such expertise, controlling the ball on his chest and volleying a left-foot shot past De Gea, it felt barely conceivable to remember all those chances he passed up in Liverpool’s previous game against Napoli.
If Liverpool had kept a clean sheet, they would have established a record for the 17-game mark of the Premier League era. Instead Alisson contrived to present Lingard with an equaliser wrapped in red ribbon. The goalkeeper had both hands on the ball when he went down to collect Romelu Lukaku’s waist-high cross. What he could not do was get a firm grip of it and suddenly the ball had squirted free. Lingard was sliding in. The ball was scuffed into the net and the nearest defender, Virgil van Dijk, was doubled over in shock, both hands covering his face.
It took a while for Liverpool to shake their heads clear and for 20 minutes in the second half there was a hint of desperation to their play, with Nathaniel Clyne, then Dejan Lovren and Van Dijk all taking aim from long distance. Again Klopp’s team were pushing their opponents back but their decision-making was erratic and it was difficult to get through all the congestion in United’s penalty area. At one point Mohamed Salah even miscued a corner and a huge sigh reverberated off the Kop.
Shaqiri’s arrival added another penetrative player to Liverpool’s attack and that was decisive. His first goal skimmed in off Young, via the underside of the crossbar, after Mané had beaten Ander Herrera to create the danger. Shaqiri’s next one flicked off Eric Bailly to fly past De Gea from just outside the penalty area and, amid all the drama, a penny for Paul Pogba’s thoughts? Once again there was no place for Pogba in Mourinho’s line-up and, when United needed some inspiration, their World Cup winner remained on the bench.
It finished with Klopp pumping his fists on the pitch, United 11 points off the top four and Mourinho sounding increasingly desperate. Liverpool, holding off the champions at the top of the table, can forget United now and that, more than anything, shows the different directions in which these clubs are travelling. (The guardian)