Liver­pool ex­pose gulf in class to de­liver an­other near death-blow on Mour­inho

Klopp’s side has 36 shots at goal in 3-1 vic­tory over arch ri­vals at An­field Liver­pool’s class over­shad­owed by bar­ren aw­ful­ness of their op­po­nents

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Front Page - Bar­ney Ronay

With 10 min­utes left at An­field Romelu Lukaku set off on a dummy run to­wards the touch­line, turned to take the ball back from the player he imag­ined to be stand­ing be­hind him. Ex­cept, that player was Vir­gil van Dijk who plays for Liver­pool.

Lukaku stopped, looked baf­fled, al­most seemed ready to scratch his head. They say the best play­ers carry a pic­ture around with them, a flash­ing radar screen of ev­ery other mov­ing part on the pitch. On a cold, wet, mer­ci­less day at An­field Lukaku seemed to be car­ry­ing a pic­ture of some­thing else al­to­gether, a game of noughts and crosses per­haps or a sketched pen­cil draw­ing of a ham­ster.

In the first half he com­pleted one pass. He made one fine run down the flank to help set up United’s equaliser. Oth­er­wise Lukaku was a num­ber nine shaped ab­sence. Of­ten the ball seemed like an ir­ri­ta­tion, a side is­sue as he got on with the wider task of re­peat­edly bounc­ing off Van Dijk like a fly bang­ing its head against a win­dow pane.

Grey regime

And yet, while he was bad here, and has been bad for weeks, Lukaku is not the prob­lem with this team. Like so many el­e­ments associated with Manch­ester United he has sim­ply been de­flated, all sense of joy and zest sucked from his game by the anti-chem­istry of this grey regime.

“Don’t sack Mour­inho, don’t sack Mour­inho”. By the end this was al­most too much for the An­field crowd, left drown­ing in honey by a late-break­ing 3-1 win that re­turned Liver­pool to the top of the ta­ble, left United’s sea­son look­ing beached, and pro­vided an­other near death-blow for a man­ager who had haunted this sta­dium ever since the last time Liver­pool fan­cied them­selves ti­tle con­tenders four years go. They won’t sack Jose Mour­inho, not yet. That new con­tract will need pay­ing up. Plus there is nowhere to go at this stage of the sea­son, no ob­vi­ous rem­edy. Not least when the en­tire club seems shot through with a sickness of the spirit that goes well beyond the head coach.

Liver­pool are of course the main story here. Jür­gen Klopp’s team were over­whelm­ingly su­pe­rior. They had 36 shots at goal. They might have won by five goals. Klopp made a per­fectly-judged sub­sti­tu­tion, bring­ing on Xher­dan Shaqiri to take the game away. But still, some­how, Liver­pool’s ex­cel­lence was over­shad­owed by the sheer bar­ren aw­ful­ness of their op­po­nents. This was beyond dire – dire squared, dire foot­ball played in dire fash­ion by a dire se­lec­tion. Imag­ine a bad plan, en­acted badly, by some­one not very good at en­act­ing bad plans. Imag­ine a neg­a­tive ap­proach, ap­plied with ex­treme neg­a­tiv­ity by a group of play­ers feel­ing neg­a­tive about the ac­tual mer­its of all this neg­a­tiv­ity. Why would any­one want to keep do­ing this? Is Mour­inho en­joy­ing it? Even United’s start­ing XI was a deathly thing with seven of the 10 start­ing out­field play­ers ei­ther de­fend­ers or de­fen­sive mid­field­ers.

Hun­gover pub team

And from the start Liver­pool tore into those deep blue-grey shirts. Eric Bailly’s first sig­nif­i­cant act was to come charg­ing for­ward out of de­fence and per­form a kind of rugby spear-tackle on Firmino. For a while United looked like a mas­sively hun­gover pub team star­tled to find it­self fac­ing a group of peak-con­di­tion pro­fes­sion­als. What’s the point of pick­ing a tough, bat­tling, mus­cu­lar team if they get out­bat­tled, out­mus­cled and out­toughed?

The goal was com­ing. You could hear it ap­proach­ing, bells jin­gling, foot­steps crunch­ing. It ar­rived af­ter Bailly had done some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary, bar­relling out of de­fence again. This time he reached the Liver­pool half be­fore hurl­ing him­self on to his back. Liver­pool for­aged down the left, and mo­ments later Fabinho played a dreamy pass over the top for Sa­dio Mané to fin­ish neatly. A José Mour­inho team that can’t de­fend: what, ex­actly, is the point of this?

Mean­while Lukaku con­tin­ued to fret. Each time the ball ap­proached he looked star­tled, wav­ing a leg, run­ning the other way, like a cat star­tled by a re­mote con­trolled toy on Christ­mas Day. But he was there to spin and sprint down the left flank and set up a close-range fin­ish for Jesse Lin­gard.

For long pe­ri­ods the sec­ond half was a neck-crick­ing af­fair, all 20 out­field play­ers dragged to­wards the United goal like snooker balls on a wonky ta­ble. United’s best at­tack­ing player An­thony Mar­tial came on with 12 min­utes to go. It seemed fit­ting the goal that re-es­tab­lished Liver­pool’s lead should come with the help of four de­flec­tions, and Shaqiri’s de­ci­sive third via an­other.

Liver­pool march on and now face a vi­tal cou­ple of weeks in their pur­suit of the league ti­tle. United will con­tinue to drift strangely, a vast, mal­func­tion­ing ma­chine, clogged at ev­ery level, and pro­duc­ing here a per­for­mance of such painful, fear­ful neg­a­tiv­ity it al­most felt like a piece of ter­ri­fy­ing art.

Mour­inho af­ter­wards con­fessed Manch­ester United could not cope with the in­ten­sity or phys­i­cal­ity of Liver­pool. He claimed his squad con­tains too many in­jury-prone play­ers and was there­fore no match for the im­pres­sive qual­i­ties of Liver­pool, a re­mark­able ad­mis­sion from a United man­ager.

Klopp de­scribed Liver­pool’s open­ing 30 min­utes as among the best per­for­mances of his ten­ure, with a sixth con­sec­u­tive league vic­tory. United’s man­ager, too, was lav­ish in praise of Liver­pool, al­beit while high­light­ing the de­fi­cien­cies in his squad. “The play­ers gave ev­ery­thing and, when the play­ers give ev­ery­thing, I am never frus­trated to­wards them,” said Mour­inho, who left Paul Pogba on the bench through­out.

“They play in re­la­tion to their qual­i­ties, the same way Liver­pool play in re­la­tion to their qual­i­ties. They [Liver­pool] are fast, they are in­tense, they are ag­gres­sive, they are phys­i­cal, they are ob­jec­tive. They play 200 miles per hour with and with­out the ball. I am still tired just look­ing at [Andy] Robert­son. When the game was re­ally in­tense in the first 20-25 min­utes it was dif­fi­cult for us to cope. If you tell me in the first 25 min­utes we are go­ing to lose, I would say yes, it looks so. But the mo­ment we lost the game was the mo­ment we didn’t be­lieve we would lose.”

‘‘ ‘Don’t sack Mour­inho, don’t sack Mour­inho’. By the end this was al­most too much for the An­field crowd, left drown­ing in honey by a late-break­ing 3-1 win that re­turned Liver­pool to the top of the ta­ble

PHO­TO­GRAPH: EPA

Liver­pool sub­sti­tute Xher­dan Shaqiri cel­e­brates with Roberto Firmino, Ge­orginio Wi­j­nal­dum and Andy Robert­son dur­ing yes­ter­day’s vic­tory over Manch­ester United at An­field, Liver­pool.

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