Liver­pool top of the tree at Christ­mas

Salah sets Klopp’s side on their way as Wolves are tamed in style

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Stu­art James at Mo­lineux

Wolves 0 Liver­pool 2

Salah 18, Van Dijk 68

The presents have come early this year for Liver­pool, who can look for­ward to spend­ing Christ­mas Day en­joy­ing the view from the top of the Premier League ta­ble. The fact that the team in that po­si­tion in eight of the pre­vi­ous nine sea­sons has gone on to win the league is the good news. The bad news it that Liver­pool, back in 2013-14, were the one club to come up short.

This Liver­pool team, how­ever, is in­tent on writ­ing their own his­tory and vic­to­ries such as this one will do noth­ing to dampen the be­lief that Jür­gen Klopp and his play­ers have their best chance yet of win­ning the Premier League ti­tle. An­other ter­rific goal from Mo­hamed Salah, who is now the Premier League’s top scorer with 11, set Liver­pool on their way to a sev­enth suc­ces­sive top-flight win.

Vir­gil van Dijk, with his first goal for the club since he scored on his de­but against Ever­ton in the FA Cup, added the sec­ond from close-range to en­able Liver­pool to open up a four-point lead over Manch­ester City at the top and ex­tin­guish any hopes that Wolver­hamp­ton Wan­der­ers had of sal­vaging some­thing from the game.

Liver­pool are now un­beaten in 19 Premier League fix­tures and it was par­tic­u­larly im­pres­sive to see Klopp’s team close out this game with the min­i­mum of fuss, bear­ing in mind that Wolves have beaten Chelsea here and taken points off both Manch­ester clubs and Ar­se­nal this sea­son.

Mean­ing­ful at­tack

Op­ti­mism abounds at Wolves th­ese days. Al­though to pro­vide a bit of con­text, Mark Lawren­son and Bruce Grobbe­laar were mak­ing their de­buts and Liver­pool were Eu­ro­pean cham­pi­ons the last time Wolves beat them at Mo­lineux. 37 years ago.

Go­ing be­hind in­side 20 min­utes was not part of the plan but that was the po­si­tion that Wolves found them­selves in af­ter Liver­pool scored from their first mean­ing­ful at­tack. The goal was sim­ple enough in its con­struc­tion – Fabinho played a one-two with Sa­dio Mané on the right – but exquisitely fin­ished by Salah, who was stand­ing al­most side­ways on when he non­cha­lantly flicked the Brazil­ian’s as­tute cut­back be­yond Rui Pa­tri­cio with the out­side of his left boot.

Wolves, in fair­ness, had car­ried the greater at­tack­ing threat in the early stages. Adama Traoré’s pace was al­ways go­ing to be a use­ful out­let in be­hind and Raul Jiménez, who played along­side him in at­tack, was happy to come short and re­ceive the ball with his back to goal. Those two com­bined in that very way to cre­ate a de­cent chance for Wolves in the 10th minute. Jiménez took the ball down su­perbly on his chest and re­leased Traoré, who gal­loped into the space that opened up in the in­side right chan­nel be­fore drag­ging a low shot be­yond Alis­son’s far up­right.

Traoré had en­joyed an­other sight of goal ear­lier in the game. Fabinho’s way­ward pass ar­rived at the feet of Traoré via Joao Moutinho but the winger rather snatched at a shot that flashed wide. That mis­take by Fabinho was far from the only one made on a sod­den pitch as the rain lashed down re­lent­lessly. Conor Coady was for­tu­nate to get away with an er­ror at the other end and Naby Keita was grate­ful that Alis­son came to his res­cue af­ter Matt Do­herty latched on to an­other mis­placed pass.

Pro­longed pos­ses­sion

Do­herty, who has been so im­pres­sive this sea­son, was caus­ing Liver­pool plenty of prob­lems with his de­sire to get for­ward on the Wolves right. Coady’s rak­ing pass, af­ter a pro­longed pe­riod of Wolves pos­ses­sion, picked out Do­herty. The Ire­land in­ter­na­tional in­tel­li­gently slid the ball into the path of Ro­main Saiss, whose run into the area went un­tracked, but the mid­fielder’s curl­ing shot was saved by Alis­son.

Salah’s goal four min­utes later could eas­ily have dis­cour­aged Wolves but, to their credit, the home team con­tin­ued to at­tack with con­vic­tion and be­lief. Jonny Cas­tro, teed up by Traoré’s first-time pass, saw his shot saved by Alis­son and Do­herty had claims for a penalty turned down when his sin­u­ous run into the Liver­pool area was brought to a halt by James Mil­ner. Re­plays ap­peared to sug­gest that Craig Paw­son, the ref­eree, got that de­ci­sion right given that Mil­ner, back in the Liver­pool team at right-back, had planted his foot be­fore Do­herty ran into him.

As much as Wolves were play­ing well, chas­ing a game against this Liver­pool team is far from ideal, es­pe­cially on an evening when Klopp had been par­tic­u­larly bullish in his ap­proach. At times Roberto Firmino, Salah, Mane and Keita were play­ing like a front four, leav­ing Fabinho and Jor­dan Hen­der­son, who was mak­ing his 300th Liver­pool ap­pear­ance, hold­ing the fort.

As the game passed the hour mark, Liver­pool were be­gin­ning to look more and more com­fort­able and it was no real sur­prise when they dou­bled their lead. Adam Lal­lana, on for the in­jured Keita, saw his close-range ef­fort blocked and Liver­pool prof­ited from the corner that fol­lowed. Saiss’s clear­ance dropped for Salah and his per­fectly flighted cross picked out Van Dijk, who coolly side-footed home from just in­side the six-yard box.

Ole Gun­nar Sol­sk­jaer was ap­pointed in­terim man­ager to lift the mood at Manch­ester United post-José Mour­inho, and his open­ing me­dia per­for­mance de­liv­ered, even when he in­sisted there was a “hairdryer” ready for the play­ers.

The Nor­we­gian does not come across as some­one in­clined to em­u­late Sir Alex Fer­gu­son’s fa­mous blasts of tem­per, but he said he would not be afraid to re­peat the off-field tac­tics of a man he still refers to as the man­ager and the boss.

“Maybe I should get the hairdryer out of my pocket be­cause I’ve got a hairdryer,” he said. “When my hair needs lift­ing I use it on my­self but I am also not afraid of, if you like, laying down the law.

“You know with your kids when they dis­ap­point you, you tell them off, you don’t give them some choco­late, do you? So you treat play­ers sim­i­lar to how you treat your kids, re­ally, be­cause you want the best for them, you want to guide them, you want to help them, but if I get dis­ap­pointed?”

Sol­sk­jaer con­sid­ers Fer­gu­son – who signed Sol­sk­jaer in 1996 and made him United’s re­serve team coach when he re­tired 11 years later – his men­tor. Sol­sk­jaer held the post un­til 2011. Seven years on, look­ing slightly be­daz­zled in the Jimmy Mur­phy Cen­tre at United’s train­ing ground, Sol­sk­jaer pep­pered thoughts on his six-month reign – in the­ory he will move aside for a per­ma­nent man­ager in the sum­mer – with ref­er­ences to Fer­gu­son.

Dress­ing down

The line about the Scot’s leg­endary man­ner when dress­ing down play­ers was cutely de­liv­ered, and more crowd-pleas­ing came in Sol­sk­jaer’s plans to tap into Fer­gu­son’s knowl­edge. He said: “I don’t know what in­put he had [in my ap­point­ment] but when I got the call, of course I texted the boss and I have been in touch with him. I am go­ing to en­joy a nice cup of tea back at his house to sit down and en­joy and dis­cuss a few ideas.”

United got rid of Mour­inho partly be­cause of how he dis­af­fected vir­tu­ally all of his squad, but Sol­sk­jaer moved to shut down any sug­ges­tion the club’s play­ers now hold the power once wielded solely by Fer­gu­son. “I’m not sure about you say­ing the power has gone to the dress­ing room,” he said. “The power is with the man­ager. He picks the team, the tac­tics, the strat­egy. The phi­los­o­phy is in th­ese walls. That legacy is more im­por­tant than any player power.”

On the day Mour­inho was sacked, Pogba posted a smirk­ing In­sta­gram im­age of him­self with the leg­end: “Cap­tion this.” It was later taken down, but such a sit­u­a­tion would have been un­think­able un­der Fer­gu­son.

Sol­sk­jaer was asked whether he had dis­cussed it with Pogba. “We’ve spo­ken about what we ex­pect, what stan­dards we have on and off the pitch,” he said. “I trust the lads to know what they’re do­ing, to help the team. Every­thing we do is to help the team.”

Sol­sk­jaer stated ear­lier this sea­son that he would build United around Pogba, who was dropped for the last three games by Mour­inho. Not wish­ing to play favourites, Sol­sk­jaer gave a mea­sured re­sponse to a ques­tion on that, now he is ac­tu­ally in charge.

“He’s a World Cup win­ner. Paul is a ter­rific lad and when I had him as a kid he was al­ways there, the happy-go-lucky lad. He hasn’t changed per­son­al­ity-wise. He’s a bet­ter player, of course, and he’s one that I want to get the best out of. You have so many qual­ity play­ers that I want to get the best out of. He’s no dif­fer­ent to any­one else in that re­spect.”

En­joy foot­ball

On his an­nounce­ment, Sol­sk­jaer said he wanted the play­ers to en­joy their foot­ball “again”. If this hinted at an aware­ness of Mour­inho hav­ing soured his charges, it caused Sol­sk­jaer’s stick­i­est mo­ment as he tried to claim the “again” was down to his grasp of English – which is close to flaw­less.

“I don’t know if they haven’t been en­joy­ing it be­cause I haven’t asked them,” he said. “‘Again’ – that’s just maybe my English. My job is to make them en­joy foot­ball and play their best foot­ball be­cause when you are a kid you love play­ing foot­ball.”

He ad­mit­ted he would like the job per­ma­nently at the end of the sea­son. “There are so many man­agers who would love to be man­ager of Manch­ester United. I’m one of them but it’s not some­thing we’ve talked about,” he said. By the close Mour­inho’s shadow had faded to the sun­shine of Sol­sk­jaer. The clos­est he came to sug­gest­ing his pre­de­ces­sor failed to play the United way was in the neat “phi­los­o­phy in th­ese walls” com­ment.

Chal­lenged on whether he thought the ethos had been lost in the post-Fer­gu­son era he was, again, smooth. He said: “Well, Sir Alex – and even go­ing all the way back to Sir Matt [Busby] – in­stalled that way of play­ing fan­tas­tic foot­ball. They’ve had three fan­tas­tic man­agers since. I have to say I’ve got huge re­spect for all three of them. They’ve man­aged the club their way. On their own mer­its, you can’t crit­i­cise Mour­inho, David Moyes, [Louis] van Gaal.

“It’s not down to me now to talk about the last five years. It’s down to me to talk about the next five months and to work the next five months to­wards get­ting us happy, get­ting us smil­ing, get­ting us win­ning games. Be­cause we’re too far down the league.

“We’re not used to be­ing sixth. We are used to chal­leng­ing for the league. Of course, that’s maybe a step too far now, too many points, but that’s where we have to aim and to look for­ward.”

Sol­sk­jaer’s quest starts at 5.30pm to­day against Cardiff, the club he took down to the Cham­pi­onship in May 2014. He will hope his sec­ond tilt at Premier League man­age­ment goes far bet­ter.

‘‘ The power is with the man­ager. He picks the team, the tac­tics, the strat­egy. The phi­los­o­phy is in th­ese walls. That legacy is more im­por­tant than any player power.


Above: Ole Gun­nar Sol­sk­jaer at yes­ter­day’s press con­fer­ence; Left: Sol­sk­jaer with coaches Emilio Al­varez, Michael Car­rick, Mike Phe­lan and Kieran McKenna at Manch­ester United’s train­ing ground.

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