Thursday, June 24, 2021

Manchester United 2-4 Liverpool: Five things as Liverpool resurrect Champions League hope

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It was certainly a glorious evening for Liverpool as they put four goals past Manchester United at Old Trafford on Thursday, conceding two in return. Not many would have expected it, not even among the Liverpool supporters, given the respective states of affairs regarding the two teams and their recent exploits.

What’s more, this was Jurgen Klopp’s first triumph as the Liverpool boss at the home of their greatest rivals. They had not managed it since 2014, when two penalties converted by Steven Gerrard and a skillful finish by Luis Suarez gave Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool a 0-3 win against David Moyes’ Manchester United.

On the other hand, this match held little competitive importance for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his men. Manchester City are already the new Premier League champions and United’s involvement in next season’s Champions League is under no threat whatsoever. Some might argue that the rivalry itself should’ve been motivation enough, and the fact that Solskjaer rested his entire starting XI when they lost to Leicester City on Tuesday shows that the Norwegian himself thought along those lines, having played in this fixture himself on a large number of occasions.

Protests with mixed messages

This game was, as you probably know, originally scheduled for May 2nd, but it had to be postponed due to a large number of United supporters protesting against the club owners and breaking into the stadium. Since then, United hosted AS Roma in the second leg of the Europa League semifinals and Leicester two days before the re-scheduled fixture, and no signs of disturbance hindered those events.

However, it was Liverpool again on Thursday and out the ‘protesters’ came, carrying banners clearly stating their desire for the Glazer family to step aside.

However, the songs they sang and their actions underlined an alternative motive even more clearly. The increased security around the stadium prevented the crowd from entering this time, but some of them still managed to block the Liverpool team bus and let its tyres down, while others sang songs taunting the city of Liverpool about poverty.

Did anyone honestly think those things would make the Glazers stop and take notice? All the ‘protests’ seem to have accomplished is that their voice against the club owners, very loud and respected in the aftermath of the failed European Super League protests, lost a lot of credibility and support from outside.

United midfielder Fred received online racist abuse after the match. Was that someone’s idea of an anti-Glazer protest as well? Sad, really.

Back to football now.

Phillips rises to occasion

With no less than FIVE centre-backs missing through injury, Klopp chose not to put Fabinho at the heart of defence and to keep him anchoring the midfield, with many agreeing the team looks much better that way. That left Nathaniel Phillips and Rhys Williams as the only option for the centre-back partnership, which may have looked rather risky against players like Edinson Cavani and Marcus Rashford.

Indeed, the two United forwards combined nicely for their second goal on the night, exploiting exactly the lack of experience from the two Liverpool defenders, as Cavani sent Rashford through with a clever assist. Things looked badly for Liverpool from the start in that aspect, with the opening goal being the result of a Phillips deflection into his own net after Bruno Fernandes tried to score from inside the box.

Lacking wider recognition for the mostly fine job he’s done this season, Phillips seemed in danger of getting nervous and making more mistakes from that point on, but no. His performance became impeccable; he dealt with everything that came his way, stopping opponents in their tracks and clearing crosses as they came. He even had a big hand in the equalizer, winning the ball inside the opposition box and maneuvering skillfully to get a shot off, which was deftly diverted into the net by Diogo Jota.

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Phillips has a year remaining on his contract and he may ask to leave the club this summer. With Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip soon back in the fold, he’s not likely to play much next season. But if he accepts a squad role and shows desire to fight for his place in the team, Liverpool could do worse than offering him a new deal.

What about Bruno?

Bruno Fernades has often been lauded for his influence over everything good United have done since his arrival, and rightly so. Those who like him praise him to heaven and even rival supporters cannot sensibly dispute his quality. After all, 28 goals and 17 assists in 56 appearances in all competitions this term speak for themselves.

Those determined to find fault say he tends to disappear in ‘big games’. Well, he certainly failed to inspire his team in this derby, but to say he disappeared would seem harsh. He tried very hard, and apart from the opening goal, credited to him despite the Phillips deflection, he continuously sent the ball towards the opposition box, seeking the runs of his forwards or midfielders. There is only so much a playmaker can do if his teammates fail to make the most of his brilliance.

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Another thing his critics are quick to point out is his apparent tendency to go down easily and react nervously if he doesn’t get a foul. Well, that was one aspect where he proved them absolutely right on Thursday.

Hardly was there any occasion throughout the 90+ minutes when the ball left his feet without him going down, holding a part of his leg and screaming like he was being tortured. One such moment apparently caused an outburst of laughter in the press box, and over at Sky Sports, United legend Roy Keane had something to say on the subject as well.

Keane is obviously as gentle with words as he was with tackles during his playing days.

All technically gifted players (and Bruno is certainly one) are frequently victims of strong physical approach, including hard and late tackles. But continuously trying to make more than there is in those situations definitely seems to be a standard feature of the Portuguese’s style.

Missing Maguire

United definitely missed the presence of their captain in the back line. Harry Maguire picked up a problem in their triumph over Aston Villa and was forced to watch his teammates play their greatest rivals from the stands.

Not that either Eric Bailly or Victor Lindelof played particularly badly, but Maguire’s resilience and physical presence often brings a dimension to their defending that these two simply don’t have. He’s also an extreme threat at attacking set-pieces.

But how much of an excuse can Maguire’s absence be? Imagine Bailly and Lindelof had been injured as well, along with two other players capable of doing a job in the heart of defence. That was the situation for Liverpool in this match. No 2019 Ballon d’Or runner-up Van Dijk, or his first-choice partner Gomez. No regular stand-in Matip either. The two January signings, Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies, were out as well. As has been said, the pairing of Phillips and Williams seemed the greatest weakness of this Liverpool team going into the match, and yet, they won.

So is Maguire absence really the reason United were beaten at home by Liverpool for the first time in seven years? Not really, no.

Liverpool in driving seat

The results on Wednesday (Arsenal beating Chelsea at Stamford Bridge) and Thursday certainly added spice to the race for Champions League qualification. The most amazing thing of all, after everything they’ve gone through, after all the points they’ve dropped miserably through the campaign, Liverpool hold their fate in their own hands at the moment.

Klopp’s men are in fifth place with 60 points to their name, four less than Chelsea in fourth and six less than Leicester City in third, but with a game in hand on both competitors who are yet to face each other in the next round.

It means it’s impossible for both Chelsea and Leicester to earn six points in the remaining two rounds, and providing Liverpool win all three of theirs – West Brom away, Burnley away and Crystal Palace at home – with none of their opponents having anything to play for at this point, the worst that could happen would be an equal number of points with Leicester at the end. And even though the Foxes have a slight advantage in goal-difference right now, the three proposed wins, even if they’re all by a single goal, are more than likely to be enough to overturn it.

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All the Merseysiders now have to worry about is beating West Brom at the Hawthorns, who managed to take a point from Anfield, Burnley at Turf Moor, who took all three and ended Liverpool’s 68-game run of no home defeats in the league, and Crystal Palace, which they admittedly destroyed at Selhurst Park.

Nothing is certain; not by a long shot.


Veselin Trajkovic

Vesko is a football writer that likes to observe the game for what it is, focusing on teams, players and their roles, formations, tactics, rather than stats. He follows the English Premier League closely, Liverpool FC in particular. His articles have been published on seven different football blogs.



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