Zlatan strikes again to save point for United against Liverpool
Depleted Liverpool held by in-form United in low-quality, exciting Old Trafford encounter
Manchester United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates his late goal. Photograph: Reuters
There was a banner fluttering at one end of the ground – “26 Years and Counting” – to remind Liverpool about how long it had been since they could last call themselves league champions. They used to have a similar one here in honour of Manchester City but it went a few years ago and, for a while, this had looked like being another day when Liverpool provided the hard evidence why Jürgen Klopp’s team must fancy their chances.
Liverpool’s frustration about not being able to hold on to their first-half lead could probably be gauged by that moment late on when Klopp, looking close to the point of spontaneous combustion, argued with José Mourinho by the side of the pitch and could be seen angrily waving away the home team’s manager. All the great championship-winning sides from Anfield knew how to hang on to a 1-0 victory and if the modern-day version had managed it here it would have been the first Liverpool side in the Premier League era to take 47 points from 21 games.
To lose that lead seven minutes from the end of normal time must have stung the visitors.
Instead, they had to make do with a draw, courtesy of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 19th goal of the season, on another of those days when Mourinho brought Marouane Fellaini off the substitutes’ bench in the hope he might be able to save them. Fellaini flicked a header against the post before Ibrahimovic scored in the same attack and overall it was difficult to argue United did not deserve it for their perseverance.
Yet it was a strangely erratic display from the home team and Paul Pogba chose a bad day to have one of his least distinguished performances, most notable for the world’s most expensive footballer seeming to get his sports mixed up and conceding a first-half penalty in the manner of someone trying to slamdunk the ball.
A simple header would have done but Pogba had lost his bearings inside the penalty area, suddenly realised he might have allowed the nearest opponent, Dejan Lovren, a little too much space and jutted out his arm to try to rectify the situation. James Milner had taken the corner that led to all this confusion and his next kick of the ball was to beat David de Gea with a penalty to the left of United’s goalkeeper.
That was not the only time Pogba seemed disorientated marking Lovren at Liverpool’s setpieces and he will not feel any better that he also wasted his team’s first clear opportunity, running on to Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s expertly weighted through ball but never quite looking like he was in control and aiming a hesitant left-foot shot just wide of the post.
For the remainder of the first half United had plenty of the ball, moving the ball with great urgency, but found it difficult to get behind a Liverpool defence deprived of Joel Matip because of the confusion with Fifa about his eligibility and with Trent Alexander-Arnold, an 18-year-old, coping well in place of the injured Nathaniel Clyne.
This was the teenager’s first start in a Premier League fixture and it cannot have been an easy adjustment when for long spells the game seemed to be played at ice-hockey speed. It was breathless stuff and, at this pace, perhaps it was inevitable both teams would be rushed into mistakes. There was one in the build-up to the goal when Phil Jones was dispossessed by Roberto Firmino before United scrambled the ball away for the decisive corner.
Earlier in the first half, Lovren’s back-pass threatened his own team but Simon Mignolet was quick off his goal-line and when he cleared the ball against Zlatan Ibrahimovic the ricochet looped on to the roof of the net.
Ibrahimovic did test Mignolet with a cannonball of a free-kick before half-time and Liverpool’s goalkeeper also denied Mkhitaryan after Ander Herrera had given the Armenian a chance to equalise. There was no doubting United’s endeavour, but they lacked finesse at key moments. Mkhitaryan had another chance ten minutes into the second half, teed up by Anthony Martial after Alexander-Arnold’s one lapse.
Liverpool found themselves pressed back during those exchanges, often operating with nine of their outfield players within 30 yards of their own goal, but once they had withheld those bursts of pressure they did create chances of their own and frequently looked dangerous on the counter-attack.
Philippe Coutinho’s nimble footwork presented Firmino with one opportunity within moment of coming on and Pogba mist have been relieved that another mistake, losing the ball inside his own half, finished with Georginio Wijanldum heading over Emre Can’s right-wing delivery.
That moment was crucial because in United’s next meaningful attack Wayne Rooney, a half-time substitute, crossed for Fellaini’s chance. Antonio Valenia turned the loose ball back across the goalmouth and Ibrahimovic expertly steered his header in via the crossbar.