Liverpool can land a huge blow on United and Mourinho
Merseyside club in the ascendancy as great rivals renew acquaintances at Anfield
Manchester United’s José Mourinho: he is favourite to be the next Premier League manager sacked. Photograph: Reuters/Heino Kalis
It is a tribute to the indelible grandeur of Manchester United that even a season of constipated football and toxic managerial asides can still seem epic-scale and entirely engrossing.
Not to mention eminently saleable, another commodity out there to be retailed. In the week leading up to Sunday’s Premier League trip to Anfield, MUTV has continued to seek new subscribers by pushing a rather telling product.
“Mourinho Press Conferences Uncut!” the banner advert on the website promises, as it has for some time, offering unfettered, peeled-eyeball access to one part of United’s season that appears to be still flying off the shelves.
It is not hard to picture the marketing meeting on this one. What have we got then? Goals? Sparkling football? Er, no. But we do have José telling people off, the weekly pressroom postmortems where those wounded, baleful eyes take on the look of a man being forced very slowly to eat forkfuls of his own liver all the while trying heroically to pretend that in fact he is doing this of his own free will and as a noble deed to save someone else.
What next, you wonder? Authentic MUFC stadium-groan ringtones? Club-branded Albert Camus outfit supplied by United’s official existential ennui partner? Roll up, roll up. Watch in HD as we monetise our own pain.
Not that Mourinho or United are ready to roll over just yet. Defeat at Valencia in midweek should not cloud the fact United have qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League from a tough-looking group.
Free-flowing victory at home to Fulham last Saturday was significant even against a team who also conceded four to Cardiff. At the end of which one of the most febrile away days in English football’s unremittingly febrile history arrives at a fascinating moment in the seasons of both United and Liverpool.
For Jürgen Klopp the weekend’s big-ticket game offers a rare and precious thing for any Liverpool manager. Victory could effectively kill Manchester United’s league season and perhaps even add a decisive blow in Mourinho’s own extended retreat from Old Trafford.
Should United lose and the teams above them win, they would be 11 points off fourth spot, the likely base level for Mourinho to stay in the job into next summer.
On the other hand, victory for United – or even the avoidance of defeat – could be a significant marker too given the history of this fixture, which has tended to stand as a staging point in the snakes and ladders of rising eras, ruined empires and periods of retrenchment.
This is a meeting of two teams without a league title between them in the past five years. But it still feels a more emotionally significant rivalry than Liverpool and Manchester City, whatever the relative strengths of those teams. With good reason too. Between them United and Liverpool have won a third of all English league titles. They have defined themselves against one another, sketched out their periods of success and relative decline.
It is this sense of conjoined fates that adds an extra glaze of interest to Sunday’s meeting. For the first time in a quarter century Liverpool are demonstrably in the ascendant on almost every score. If not quite on the perch, they are hungrily staking it out, top of the league and last season’s Champions League finalists, while United are as close points-wise to the relegation spots as they are to the top.
More significantly Klopp has an opportunity to apply, if not the decisive death blow to a United era, then a significant cut. Mourinho is still favourite to be the next Premier League manager sacked, albeit defeat at Anfield would hasten rather than spark his departure.
It would also be an experience with a few recent echoes. Here is an odd coincidence: Mourinho left Real Madrid a month after the 4-1 defeat by Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund in April 2013; two years later Mourinho was sacked at Chelsea a month after the traumatic 3-1 defeat by Klopp’s Liverpool at Stamford Bridge during which the travelling fans sang “you’re getting sacked in the morning” and the wheel turned decisively against him.
Klopp has a chance of an extended José hat-trick here. Not that anything of the sort will be on his mind. The preoccupation is instead with trajectory, the rising of another red-shaded era. This has long been the maths between these two clubs, imagined or not.
Jamie Carragher has suggested Alex Ferguson did not actually knock Liverpool off their perch in the early 1990s, that it was Norwich and Aston Villa that United were competing with in that first Premier League-branded season. But Liverpool had been the dominant power for over a decade when United went to Anfield for the most ominous – and indeed for Liverpool fans encouraging – precursor to Sunday’s game.
Back in March 1993, United came to Anfield in a similar position to Klopp’s Liverpool now. This was an energetically regeared team under a new-ish manager still feeling for the next stage, squinting into the glare of a first league title in a quarter of a century. Liverpool were 15th in the league table. United could finally go top by winning this game against a mix and match team of old and new, with Ian Rush among Liverpool’s scorers, a replacement for the misjudged big money transfer Paul Stewart.
True to current comparisons Liverpool were even managed by a scowling misanthropist in the shape of Graeme Souness.
‘No hiding place’
Goals from Mark Hughes and Brian McClair gave United victory and a run to the title from there. “No hiding place from harsh realities in Liverpool,” noted the Times. “Mature United confirm championship credentials,” confirmed the Guardian.
“Manchester United are on top of the Premier League, that first elusive title for 25 years seemingly within their grasp, after a magnificent piece of football theatre on one of the game’s great stages,” was the Sunday Times’s take, although a similarly dramatic denouement seems less likely on Sunday because both teams have tended to grind and sit deep in their better moments this season.
Winning these big one-off games is still a strength for Mourinho. For Klopp’s Liverpool, losing finalist in three cup competitions, this is a first real jumping off point in the more attritional challenge of dragging his team across the line in the league.
It is a vital moment in that regard. Liverpool will also play Arsenal and Manchester City before the festive baubles come down. In their favour the victory against Napoli was both impressively resilient and laced with the kind of tactical patterns that may yet be employed against City in January, with a succession of rapid breaks and long passes into the space behind the full-backs.
In the other dugout Mourinho, the king of pain, will welcome a chance to show his base quality and the paradox of his elite club career, the ability to dredge out fine results as an underdog. Albeit one laced with a sense of seesawing destiny, of club trajectories that tend to pass along the way on days like these.