Salah seals the deal as Liverpool see off a dogged Man United
Jürgen Klopp’s side move 16 points clear at the top of the table with a game in hand
Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk celebrates scoring the opening goal during the Premier League win over Manchester United. Photo: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images
Liverpool 2 Manchester United 0
For Manchester United fans, it is the hope that kills them. The hope that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can find the answers, that the flickers of promise from his tenure can morph into meaningful momentum, that the romance inherent in his appointment can somehow over-ride the problems and the drift at the top of the club.
This was a game in which Liverpool’s superiority was so pronounced for most of the first-half and the early part of the second that it would have been no surprise had they led by five or six. The intensity of their football coupled with the surgical nature of their incisions were enough to take the breath. It certainly seemed to take that of United. During the period, it felt like the latest reality check for Solskjaer and his players.
The hope persisted as United somehow emerged from the storm to play a bit of front-foot football. Anthony Martial even blew an excellent chance for an improbable equaliser. United fought until the end.
And yet at the end, the very end, after United had loaded men into the Liverpool area for an all-or-nothing corner, there was Mohamed Salah racing onto Alisson’s clearance, holding off Daniel James and finally giving Liverpool the breathing space they had craved. Alisson ran the length of the pitch to celebrate with a knee-slide in front of Salah,
The Kop bellowed about winning the Premier League, about how people would now believe them and it was hard to see who might not. Liverpool’s invincible run goes on. For United, it was another example of their best efforts not being good enough. The final analysis was again unkind.
Solskjaer had provided a pre-match bombshell when he said that he did not expect Marcus Rashford “to be back in the next few weeks,” standing up the rumours that the back problem to United’s key striker was serious. Solskjaer really has had no luck with injuries. How he would have wanted Rashford’s cutting edge.
Solskjaer had reassured himself that United were the only team to have taken anything from Liverpool in the league this season and he started with three central defenders, as he had in the 1-1 draw at Old Trafford. He used the same system from that October game with the strikers, Daniel James and Anthony Martial, split wide and the central attacking midfielder, Andreas Pereira, pushed high.
United actually settled the quicker but this team of Klopp’s is not easily knocked from their stride. They have tended to find the answers, the means of taking control and they did so on 14 minutes following a corner that gravely undermined Solskjaer’s plans.
It is always galling to concede from a set-piece but particularly in a classic game and particularly when it involves a breakdown in the marking. Why was Brandon Williams, who stands at 5ft 6in, assigned the task of tracking Van Dijk, one of the most dominant aerial forces in the game? With Harry Maguire blocked off by Joe Gomez, Van Dijk rose to head home Trent Alexander-Arnold’s delivery.
It was as if a switch had been flicked. Liverpool flew at United, squeezing them, suffocating them and coming to camp inside their half for much of the remainder of the half. United could not get out and it was all they could do to enjoy any peace in possession. Liverpool were too quick, too tenacious and, but for a VAR call, they would have been 2-0 up in the 24th minute, the game almost over.
Van Dijk went up with De Gea and there was contact, so much so that United temporarily stopped, expecting the whistle. It did not come. Sadio Mane won back the ball from Victor Lindelof and Roberto Firmino curled into the far corner. Cue United fury and, after review, an acknowledgement that Van Dijk had fouled De Gea. It was a tight decision.
Moments earlier, Luke Shaw had denied Mane with a saving challenge after Firmino’s cross had broken off Fred and Liverpool, the scent of blood in their nostrils, poured forward for more. Firmino could not finish from Mohamed Salah’s cross and Liverpool had another goal ruled out, this time for offside, after Gini Wijnaldum was deemed to have been fractionally ahead of the last man before he steered home from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s pass.
De Gea was forced into a one-on-one block with his legs to keep out Mane and United’s only real moment of first-half note came when Aaron Wan-Bissaka, stealing into space, prodded Martial’s cross across goal. Pereira could not stretch to apply a decisive touch at the far post.
Liverpool’s remorselessness has been a feature of their fabulous run and they returned their foot to United’s throat upon the second-half restart. Salah somehow fluffed his lines from close range after Andy Robertson’s cross and a Shaw misjudgement while Jordan Henderson banged a shot against the outside of the post.
How was it only 1-0? It felt like a trick of the mind. And yet while the margin remained slender, United retained hope. They told themselves that it might take only one chance. And, after Fred had shot wide, they created the gilt-edged one, Martial swapping passes with Pereira to set up the shooting chance inside the box. He slashed high.
Mane prodded wide at the other end and, with United sensing a reprieve, Martial and Fred had shots on goal. Liverpool, though, would not relinquish what they had. – Guardian