Time for blood and thunder
GARY NEVILLE once ran the length of the field to inflame the Kop; Jose Mourinho managed it by putting his finger to his lips. The incendiary presence of the Special One in the Devils’ dugout on Tuesday is one of many reasons for setting the alarm at an unearthly 3am.
Liverpool vs Manchester United is a fixture that still sets the pulse racing. But only just. If we’re honest, several recent clashes have not been worthy of the name: tepid affairs lacking the blood and thunder of Macca and Robbo, Carra and Keano, and Neville’s memorable salutation.
Stevie G tried to inject a bit of the old bite a couple of seasons ago when he came off the bench to stamp on Ander Herrera’s foot – but got sent off after 38 seconds. Yep, it’s a more namby-pamby affair now not helped by the preponderance of foreign players yet to grasp the full extent of the tribal loathing.
Early kickoff times have also had an anaesthetising effect: the juices aren’t in full flow, the fires not yet burning. We saw what a difference an evening kickoff made when their most recent clash at Anfield managed to bring the moribund Europa League to life in March.
Tuesday’s 225th meeting between the old enemies will also be a floodlit occasion and should have enough going on to make up for the loss of sleep in this part of the world.
If some players don’t “get” the rivalry, the managers certainly do.
Jurgen Klopp has immersed himself in Liverpudlian lore for a year now and Mourinho knows it only too well having first incurred Scouser wrath while at Chelsea and during a League Cup final at Wembley.
He will be careful not to repeat his infamous shushing gesture on his first appearance at Anfield as United manager but will forever be the proverbial red rag to the Liverpool bull. Subsequent epics with Rafa Benitez’ Reds and whinging about the “ghost goal” ensured him pariah status even before he took the United reins. Typically, he thrives on it – boasting an excellent record on the ground.
The presence of the two most charismatic bosses in the game will ensure their every twitch will be scrutinised, but it is an intriguing clash between two giant works in progress and may well be a pointer to how they fare for the rest of the season.
It’s fair to say that at the outset, Liverpool would be happy to finish in the top four, United devastated not to.
Well, it is still early doors but Liverpool are there and United are not, and no one would argue that Klopp’s men have enjoyed the better season so far.
They have played the better football and looked much more of a team. And unlike their opponents, they’ve done it on a net spend of next to nothing.
Indeed, only leaders Manchester City have looked more lethal in attack while United, hamstrung by the Wayne Rooney issue, are some distance from finding the right blend, let alone getting the best out of the world’s most expensive player, Paul Pogba.
All this is why Liverpool are favourites but the international break is the ultimate spanner in the works of form and fitness, and why both managers will have been scanning the arrivals board at Heathrow with some trepidation. Liverpool had nine players on international duty to United’s 14 but the Reds travelled half as far again.
At the start of the break, Mourinho said of his departees: “We don’t know the way they train, the way they recover, the life they are going to have with their national teams.” He may take comfort from the fact that most of his key men remained in Europe whereas Liverpool’s Brazilians Coutinho and Firmino did the full Marco Polo – almost 20,000km.
It was why, after the last international break, Klopp left Coutinho out of the next match as he didn’t think he was ready. He will not want to do that for such a big game but the duo’s condition could have a major bearing on the outcome. Indeed, it is Liverpool’s cutting edge with this pair and Sadio Mane operating in a trident that poses the main threat to United’s defence. And why Mourinho may – dare it be said - park the bus.
He has been on the receiving end of one thrashing at Klopp’s hands when the two were respectively at Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, but that was when Robert Lewandowski banged in four.
Although United have a good recent record on the ground, Klopp holds most of the cards having completed a year in the job whereas Mourinho is just starting and the German knows his best team whereas the Portuguese still seems a little unsure of his.
Suffice to say, Mourinho would be more pleased with a draw than Klopp which tells you where the two are in their rebuilding. Liverpool are still too unsteady at the back to look serious title contenders but they are closer than United. Still, you feel if and when Mourinho gets them to click, they will be a force to be reckoned with.
Klopp will be hoping Dejan Lovren and Nathaniel Clyne are fit again along with Emre Can, but the game may be too soon for Adam Lallana and Georginio Wijnaldum. Their absence will weaken midfield but Coutinho, dropping deeper, and Can, moving forward, are good enough to compensate while he has several striker options.
In front of the newlyexpanded and louder Anfield, Liverpool may have too much for a still dysfunctional United to handle on what we hope is a
Dimitar Berbatov’s hattrick for United, including a spectacular overhead kick, in a personal wonder show trumped Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard’s brace as the hosts headed towards one of their more comfortable title successes.
A header from a corner was followed by a stunning bicycle kick. But, as has become a familiar pattern in these clashes, it heralded a stunning comeback as Gerrard scored with a penalty and a freekick.
Another header made Berbatov the first United player for more than half a century to grab a hattrick against Liverpool, and earned a vital three points on the way to their historic 19th title – surpassing the record jointly held with Liverpool.
Liverpool still harboured hopes of a first Premier League title, but champions United were the team to beat, and when Cristiano Ronaldo put the home side in front, it looked like another false dawn for Rafael Benitez’s side.
But Fernando Torres, enjoying possibly his best game for Liverpool, equalised and a Steven Gerrard penalty then put the visitors ahead before halftime, Old Trafford was in for a shock.
Late goals by Fabio Aurelio and Andrea Dossena, following United defender Nemanja Vidic’s red card, put the icing on the cake for Liverpool though United once again had the last laugh, pipping their rivals to the title.
Memorable less for on-field brilliance than the festering of wounds opened up by Gary Neville’s goal celebration in front of the Kop in their Premier League clash a few weeks earlier. The bad feeling spilled over into the FA Cup fifth-round tie at Anfield, with Liverpool later apologising after sections of the crowd threw coins at United supporters. “I expected abuse, but I also got a hamburger and about £4.50 in change,” Neville said after United’s defeat. But there was more unpleasantness when United’s Alan Smith broke his leg, prompting taunts from some Liverpool fans, who also attacked the ambulance in which he was taken to hospital.
Not for the first, or last, time the fixture produced a memorable comeback. United were 3-0 up inside half an hour at Anfield but Liverpool’s Nigel Clough scored twice before the break and defender Neil Ruddock crowned a stunning fight back with the equaliser 10 minutes from time. United still won the league.
Liverpool’s Jamie Carragher (left) and Manchester United’s Gary Neville were not the best of friends when they were on the pitch together. September 2010: United 3 Liverpool 2 March 2009: United 1 Liverpool 4 February 2006: Liverpool 1 United 0 January 1994: Liverpool 3 United 3